War on Terrorism

Friday, August 18, 2006

Bagram A-10 Thuderbolts Surge for Summer Offensives in Afghanistan

By Maj. David Kurle, USAF

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan, Aug. 18, 2006 – Six U.S. and coalition troops peer out from a remote position on a ridge top in Afghanistan. At sunset on the third day of their vigil, a large force of Taliban extremists carrying heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades surround and pin down the team.

By design, an Air Force joint tactical air controller is with the team. His job is to direct strike aircraft to targets on the ground. The situation on the ridgeline is desperate until an Air Force pilot flying an A-10 Thunderbolt II in the vicinity contacts him. Helping the A-10 pilot find and target his attackers on the ground, the air controller stays in radio contact, except when forced to pick up his weapon and fire at the enemy closing in. The A-10 and its pilot hammer at the enemy with bombs and the plane's massive gun.

"Fifty minutes later the remaining enemy retreated and (the JTAC) and his team walked off that ridge to re-supply and fight again the next day," said Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Keith McBride, commander of the 81st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron deployed here. McBride, an A-10 pilot, uses this real-life story to illustrate his point that the A-10 is saving lives in Afghanistan.

"There have been numerous occasions where our troops have been taking heavy fire and we show up, and either our presence ends the engagement or we employ against enemy positions and end the engagement," said Air Force Col. Tony Johnson, the 455th Expeditionary Operations Group commander and an A-10 pilot.

Flying hours and the amount of bombs and bullets used by A-10 pilots here have increased all summer due to two offensives by ground forces against the enemy. Operations Mountain Lion and Mountain Thrust flushed Taliban extremists out of where they normally hole-up, exposing them to U.S. and coalition forces on the ground, who called on A-10 pilots to provide close-air support.

"The increase in weapons deliveries is primarily because U.S. and coalition operations have carried the fight to the extremists," Air Force Brig. Gen. Christopher Miller, 455th Air Expeditionary Wing commander, said. One of Miller's jobs is to advise Combined Joint Task Force 76's U.S. Army commander on the use of combat aircraft in Afghanistan.

"Where extremists have attacked the Afghan people and their infrastructure, we have helped defend them, and we have carried the fight to the enemy, to push them back and reduce their ability to carry out further attacks," he said. "The whole A-10 team, from the airmen who launch them to the pilots who fly them, should be proud. They are saving the lives of Americans and many others they don't even know. And in the big picture, they're enabling the security Afghanistan needs to rebuild into a society where terrorists can't flourish."

The A-10's ability to precisely hit targets also lends itself well to U.S. forces engaged in rebuilding Afghanistan, Johnson said. Preservation of infrastructure and limiting damage on the ground are crucial, since the country of Afghanistan is not the enemy. "We're also rebuilding a country," he said. "I don't know what other airplane would be better at this than the A-10."

The A-10 originally was designed around its 30 mm gun, designated the GAU-8. The gun is more of a small artillery piece --firing huge bullets into target areas at a rate of 65 per second. The A-10 is the only Air Force aircraft designed specifically for close air support -- providing firepower for ground troops in fights with enemy forces. If the gun isn't enough, 11 stations underneath the plane hold up to 16,000 pounds of bombs, missiles and rockets.

"Our weapons effects make a decisive impact on the battle," McBride said. "Ground forces rely on our rapid response and our pinpoint accuracy." The GAU-8, with its 8-foot, rifled barrels, delivers bullets at a blistering 3,000 feet per second. When pilots pull the trigger, they aim using the plane's computer, which takes into account factors like speed, altitude, distance from the target, and angle of the plane's nose. This combination of physics and software make the 30 mm gun on the A-10 extremely accurate.

"Just the large amount and type of weapons the A-10 can carry, combined with a long loiter time over our troops on the ground, makes up for the lack of organic, heavy weapons (carried by U.S. and coalition forces)," McBride said. But it's not just the A-10's firepower that makes it an excellent choice for supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. The plane is designed rugged, much like the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan. To enable twists and turns through low valleys and high peaks, the wings stick straight out, allowing small, sharp turns. It's heavily armored for the benefit of its pilots and is built to land and take off from the well-worn surface of Bagram's runway.

The A-10 combines some of the best of today's high-technology Air Force with a solid, low-tech foundation. The addition of a targeting and laser-designation pod was a huge boost to the plane's capabilities but still no substitute for the pilot's eyeballs.

"Most other aircraft rely heavily on (electronic) sensors to find and target the enemy," said Capt. Rick Mitchell, an active-duty pilot deployed here from the Air Force Reserve's 442nd Fighter Wing, at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. "In the A-10, it's not unusual for a pilot to use binoculars." When Mitchell flies, his preparation for the mission is extensive and can take more time than the actual combat sortie. Once in the air, pilots can fly to pre-planned targets or fly in holding patterns above potential battlefields, waiting to swoop down when ground forces encounter the enemy.

The Combined Air Operations Center, in an undisclosed Southwest Asia location, generates missions for Bagram's A-10s. This high-tech command center runs air operations for both Afghanistan and Iraq. "We work those guys pretty hard," said British Royal Air Force Flight Lt. Matthew Adamson-Drage, a fighter controller who helps assign missions to the A-10s at the CAOC. "The A-10s are pretty much the backbone of (air operations in Afghanistan) because they're flying all the time every day."

To keep the A-10 in fighting form and meet this summer's sweltering pace, the 455th Expeditionary Maintenance Group had to get creative to keep the aircraft ready for missions. Airmen in the 455th Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron, commanded by Maj. Tim Coger, work around the clock on two aircraft at a time in Bagram's A-10 "phase hangar." Every 400 flight-hours, an A-10 requires a thorough inspection of certain essential parts.

"We're flying off 400 hours here faster than we do at home station," Coger said. "The maintenance tempo is driven by the flying. Since the pilots are flying the jets more, it has caused us to do more maintenance." And they're not just keeping aircraft flying. Maintainers also load the weapons A-10s need to support ground troops.

That's where Master Sgt. Dennis Peterson, from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, comes in. He is the 455th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron's chief weapons loader. "It's been steady work ever since we touched down here," he said. "Rarely a day goes by when (the A-10s) don't come back empty. To see that airplane come back empty is the hallmark of being a weapons loader."

The load teams at Bagram keep a running score of the bombs, rockets and bullets used by A-10s since arriving here in May by posting the tallies on a mural painted next to the group's lounge to remind airmen about the gravity of their mission. "Our maintenance troops have performed magnificently," McBride said.

The sum of maintenance and flying efforts enables the A-10 to be an effective protector of U.S. and coalition ground forces on the front lines against extremists whose goal is to drag Afghanistan back to the Taliban's repressive brutality and again let the country be used as a haven for terrorists. "The A-10 is employing lethal firepower when it's needed most by troops on the ground," Mitchell said. "There's nothing more rewarding to a close-air-support pilot than knowing the firepower you employed just saved the lives of guys on the ground."

(Air Force Maj. David Kurle is assigned to the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing.)

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