The Russian air force has ordered that most of its SU-25 ground attack aircraft be upgraded to the Su-25SM3 standard that was developed in 2012 in an effort to match the capabilities of the American A-10C. a recent (2005) upgrade to the 1970s A-10 design that added the ability to use guided bombs and missiles. The Americans went ahead and upgraded most of their A-10s while Russia dropped plans to upgrade all the Su-25s because the money was not available. The few aircraft upgraded to Su-25SM3a were tested and found quite effective and popular with pilots. Su-25s have been heavily used in Ukraine by Russia and the Ukrainians, who inherited many Su-25s when the Cold War ended and kept them in service.
The A-10 ground attack aircraft was designed to destroy Russian tanks in Europe for a war that never happened. The 20-ton A-10 entered service in 1977. Four years later the 19-ton Russian Su-25 entered service. Both aircraft were designed to provide close air support for ground combat forces and survive fire from ground troops. Both aircraft were equipped with armor around the cockpit and key components. The A-10 had a distinctive design with its two jet engines mounted above the rear fuselage, to make it less vulnerable to ground fire. The competing A-9 had a design similar to the Su-25. Both the Su-25 and A-9 used what was considered a conventional design and both aircraft added similar special features like lightweight armor for the engines and pilot.
The Su-25, which began development a little before the A-10 did not enter service until 1981. While the A-10 was upgraded to handle guided weapons in 2005, the Su-25 did not get similar upgrades until 2012 and these upgrades were not ordered for all Su-25s until 2023. Over a thousand Su-25s have been built and most are used by the Russian Air Force.
While Ukraine has its own Si-25s it has asked for American A-10s because the A-10 has the upgrades to handle guided missiles and smart bombs. A-10s also come with a 30mm autocannon firing armor piercing shells designed to penetrate the top armor on Russian tanks. The 30mm rotary cannon and supporting equipment weigh nearly two tons and fire thee armor piercing rounds at the rate of up to 65 a second. When tanks are not present the A-10 carries explosive rounds that are more effective against ground troops.
The Soviet Union self-destructed in 1991, but that was the year the A-10 first saw combat, destroying Russian made tanks in Kuwait and Iraq. There were 132 A-10s in that war, they were available 95 percent of the time and flew 8,100 sorties. Four A-10s were shot down by SAMs (Surface to Air Missiles) and eleven were hit by anti-aircraft artillery. The A-10 proved to be as rugged as it was designed to be with those hit by ground fire making it back to base. Several were so badly damaged they never flew again. In that operation A-10s scored their first air-to-air victories, downing two Iraqi helicopters. A-10s used 90 percent of the Maverick guided missiles expended in that conflict and when it was all over the air force decided it needed the A-10 and gave up plans to replace it with a ground attack version of the F-16. This was a remarkable comeback for an aircraft that first flew in 1972 and entered service in 1977. Only 716 were produced between 1972 and 1984, but 39 percent (282) are still in service as the much-upgraded A-10C. The air force kept trying to set a retirement date for the A-10 but new uses were constantly found and, even before Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, the air force had decided to indefinitely put off retiring the A-10. This was partially because there was no viable replacement and the A-10 had a remarkable ability to keep reinventing itself to remain useful. For example, the A-10 had become a key component of CSAR (Combat Search and Rescue) for pilots down in hostile territory. Some designs, like the B-52 heavy bomber, are irreplaceable and the A-10 has become another one of them.
Spare parts from AMARC (Aerospace Maintenance and Recovery Center) have kept the ancient A-10 ground attack aircraft flying. The A-10 was not able to demonstrate its effectiveness until the 1990s and ever since the army and marines have been able to block air force efforts to retire all A-10s. Instead, the A-10 was upgraded and received new wings to replace the ones weakened by decades of flying, often in combat. The most useful A-10 weapon is its built-in 30mm autocannon. Originally designed to use armor piercing shells, these were replaced with high-explosive shells for ground support. Just the sound of the low-flying A-10 firing its 30mm autocannon was considered a useful weapon by the ground troops as it would demoralize the enemy troops who survived the firepower.
Recent upgrades included the ability to use smart bombs. The latest upgrade involved new bomb racks that enable each A-10C to carry sixteen GBU-39 smart bombs that are laser guided and the most popular weapon used to support ground troops. The A-10 can carry seven tons of bombs and the sixteen GBU-39 SDBs (Small Diameter Bombs), with their new bomb racks, weigh less than five tons.
The Su-25SM3 carries upgraded, encrypted communications as well as missile and enemy aircraft detection systems and countermeasures. There are systems to handle GPS (GLONASS) guided bombs or laser guided missiles. Two air-to-air missiles can be carried for use against enemy jets or helicopters. The upgraded Su-25 still carries the single barrel 30mm cannon and 250 rounds of armor piercing or high-explosive shells. The Ukrainians have not upgraded any of their Su-25s but are considering it, using Ukrainian and NATO nation accessories.