When it comes to warplanes, which is better: shiny and new, or tried and true?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Once upon a time, the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II was inarguably the best close air support fighter in the U.S. Air Force's arsenal. But if you ask USAF brass today, they'll tell you it's time to retire the much-loved (but not for its looks) "Warthog." Its day is done, and there are other planes -- more modern, capable planes -- that can perform the A-10's mission just as well.

Lockheed Martin's (NYSE:LMT) F-35 stealth fighter, for example, sports a 25mm GAU-22/A Gatling gun for ground attack, plus internal weapons bays and external hard points permitting a payload of eight bombs and missiles. The plane it's replacing, Lockheed's venerable F-16 fighter, carries a similar payload, and has an M61 Vulcan Gatling gun with capacity for 511 20mm cannon rounds  (which, firing at 6,000 rounds per minute, the F-16 can empty in 5.1 seconds flat).

Boeing's (NYSE:BA) high-altitude B-1B bomber isn't much good at strafing, but it can carry a payload of 144 "smart" GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs in its bays, permitting precision strikes on ground targets. And rounding out the ensemble, Lockheed makes a gunship version of its C-130 Hercules transport. Used primarily on special ops missions, it's called variously the "Spectre," "Spooky," or "Ghostrider," and as recently argued on the pages of the Air Force Times, all three variants beat the smaller A-10 for "lethality." Each carries a 105mm howitzer, twin 40mm cannon, and a 25mm Gatling gun capable of unloading 2,500 rounds per minute -- a trifecta of terror for any opposing force.

From the sheer perspective of how much lead can we throw at the enemy, there's no denying -- there are alternatives to the A-10. The problem these days is more a question of cost. With the Air Force on the hook for upward of $1 trillion to buy and fly its new fleet of F-35s, money's getting tight. USAF worries that funding the A-10 will necessitate cutting elsewhere -- retiring hundreds of F-16s, forgoing F-35s, and perhaps killing the B-1B program entirely. So eventually, this turns into a numbers game. Which plane can do the best job of close air support at the cheapest cost?

To find that out, we've mined data from military aircraft website Deagel.com, and from the USAF itself, to try and come up with some answers. Take a click-tour of the following slideshow and see what you think -- and make sure check out our special free report at the end.


Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.