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The Age Of The Dirt Fighter Fades
by James Dunnigan
July 24, 2013

Without a lot of opposition from the U.S. Air Force, the ground support mission is being replaced by GPS guided rockets and artillery shells, as well as a growing assortment of guided missiles controlled by ground forces. The air force was never comfortable with the ground support (of ground combat troops) mission. It was always considered something your fighters did after they had shot down all enemy aircraft in the vicinity and only if ordered to do so. Until the 1990s, (and the widespread use of smart bombs and guided missiles) the army was not too happy about U.S. Air Force ground support efforts. After World War II most American troop casualties from air attack were caused by U.S. Air Force aircraft hitting the wrong target (friendly fire). There were few hostile attacks because American fighters have dominated the air for over 60 years.

Despite all this, the army kept pressing the air force, and Congress, to do something about the poor state of air force ground support. After the Vietnam War (1965-72) the air force agreed to design and build an aircraft specifically for ground support. Many air force commanders opposed this, but Congress agreed to pay for it and this resulted in the A-10: a 23 ton, twin engine, single seat aircraft whose primary weapon is a multi-barrel 30mm cannon originally designed to fire armored piercing shells at Russian tanks. These days the 1,174 30mm rounds are mostly high explosive. The 30mm cannon fires 363 gram (12.7 ounce) rounds at the rate of about 65 a second. The cannon usually fires in one or two second bursts. In addition, the A-10 can carry seven tons of bombs and missiles. These days the A-10 goes out with smart bombs (GPS and laser guided) and Maverick missiles. It can also carry a targeting pod, enabling the pilot to use high magnification day/night cameras to scour the area for enemy activity. Cruising speed is 560 kilometers an hour and the A-10 can slow down to about 230 kilometers an hour. In Afghanistan two drop tanks are usually carried, to give the aircraft more fuel and maximum time over the battlefield.

A-10s were designed for combat against Russian ground forces in Europe during the Cold War. That war never happened, but the A-10 proved to be a formidable combat aircraft in post-Cold War conflicts, first in the 1991 liberation of Kuwait and later in Afghanistan and Iraq. But at the end of the Cold War the air force considered giving its A-10s to the army and finally be done with ground support. But after the success of the A-10 in the first Gulf War (1990-91) and then Afghanistan and Iraq, the air force changed its mind, kept the A-10s and even upgraded them. But rather than design a replacement for the A-10, the air force pretended that the F-16 and F-35 could fill in for the rapidly aging A-10s. These fighter aircraft cannot do that and the army is content to use its own “smart weapons” to replace the GPS guided bombs and low-level cannon fire the A-10 can deliver. Other air force planes (bombers and fighter-bombers) can drop GPS guided bombs but these aircraft are not really carrying out ground attack missions because they do this from high altitude (over 6,000 meters) and are largely immune to ground fire. In this role they are considered “bomb trucks” not real “dirt fighters” (warplanes that come in real low to attack). F-16s and F-35s are not really suited for this sort of thing. Consider that of the 272 F-16s lost in the last three decades, none were due to air-to-air combat, but one was lost during a low level pass to use its cannon. All the other losses were accidents, half due to pilot error. 

During the last decade the most requested ground support aircraft in Afghanistan has been the A-10, the ultimate dirt fighter. There was similar A-10 affection in Iraq. Troops from all nations quickly came to appreciate the unique abilities of this 1970s era aircraft that the U.S. Air Force has several times tried to retire. Two years ago the air force did announce that it was retiring 102 A-10s, leaving 243 in service. At the same time the air force accelerated the upgrading of the remaining A-10s to the A-10C standard.

Also called the PE (for precision engagement) model, the refurbished A-10s are supposed to remain in service until 2028, meaning most A-10Cs will have served over 40 years and as many as 16,000 flight hours. The upgrade effort has been underway for over five years. The upgrades include new electronics as well as structural and engine refurbishment. The A-10C provides the pilot with the same targeting and fire control gadgets the latest fighters have. The new A-10C cockpit has all the spiffy color displays and easy to use controls. Because it is a single-seat aircraft that flies close to the ground (something that requires a lot more concentration), all the automation in the cockpit allows the pilot to do a lot more, with less stress, exertion, and danger.

The basic A-10 is a 1960s design, so the new additions are quite spectacular in comparison. New commo gear has also been added, allowing A-10 pilots to share pix and vids with troops on the ground. The A-10 pilot also has access to the Blue Force Tracker system, so that the nearest friendly ground forces show up on the HUD (Head Up Display) when coming in low to use the 30mm cannon. The A-10 can now use smart bombs, making it a do-it-all aircraft for ground support.

A-10s are worked hard in Afghanistan. For example, an A-10 squadron has a dozen aircraft and 18 pilots. Pilots often average about a hundred hours a month in the air. That's about twenty sorties, as each sortie averages about five hours. The aircraft range all over southern Afghanistan, waiting for troops below to call for some air support. The A-10, nicknamed "Warthog" or just "hog", could always fly low and slow and was designed, and armored, to survive a lot of ground fire. The troops trust the A-10 more than the F-16 or any other aircraft used for ground support. If there is another major war in some place like Korea or with Iran, the A-10s will once more be one of the most popular warplane with the ground troops.


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