In a "Hot" Peace: The A-10 Since
by John "Spoons" Sponauer
Published August 14, 2001 at
All images below are thumbnails; Original images are available at the SimHQ article linked to above.
It's hard to come up with an aircraft further from the style of combat preferred by the US in the 1990s than the A-10 Thunderbolt II. It isn't supersonic, rarely carries "smart" bombs, has very few computerized systems, and most definitely isn't in its peak flight envelope for the high altitude, low exposure, high precision strikes carried out throughout the decade. It rarely creates good video of bombs slamming home for the evening news, and has very little ability to tangle on any sustained level with enemy aircraft. The truth is, it would probably be outperformed by several fighters from the WWII generation.
That so many A-10s are still in use today and have seen so much action in the past ten years since Desert Storm is due to the factors that make the aircraft an enduring national asset.....its innovative pilot community and its ability to fly a long time, sustain battle damage, and give back firepower in spades.
Much has been written about the A-10's performance in Operation Desert Storm, but it bears repeating. Operating in an environment that was polar opposite to those in which it was designed for, using tactics created "off the shelf" by its crews, and outclassed in performance by essentially every other aircraft in-theater, the A-10 was very much a low-tech star of the high-tech war in the desert. The numbers alone are staggering, especially for an aircraft due to be phased out of the USAF inventory...these figures come from Part Two of The History of the A-10 Thunderbolt II, written earlier this year by SimHQ's own Willem Aalbers:
- Missions flown:8,775
- Recorded Kills:
- 987 Armored Vehicles
- 1106 Trucks
- 926 Artillery pieces
- 501 APCs
- 249 CPs
- 51 Scud Launchers
- 11 Frog Missile Launchers
- 112 Military Structures
- 96 Radar Installations
- 72 Bunkers
- 10 Enemy Aircraft (on ground)
- 2 Helicopters
- 9 SAM Sites
- 8 Fuel Tanks
The A-10's performance during Desert Storm, as well as the wide variety of missions that it was able to accomplish, impressed the USAF, which curbed plans to retire the aircraft and rely on faster, modified F-16s for much of the A-10's tasks. Some of the new missions that the A-10 performed in the Gulf War with merit, such as the innovative night-fighting capability and the ability to serve as functional airborne forward air controller aircraft, were increasingly made the focus of the A-10 community, as there was no other plane in the inventory or planned that could do so many tasks so well. The A-10's heavily armed and armored airframe proved time and time again in Desert Storm that it could both take and deal punishment in combat, and both of those traits could also serve well in the roles identified by the USAF for the aircraft. It wasn't long before the Hogs would be in action, and in these conflicts the aircraft and its crews proved critics wrong once again.
WARTHOGS over Iraq 1991-2001
Northern Iraq: Food and Fighting
Operation Provide Comfort (April 6, 1991 - July 24, 1991)
With Iraq's military in shambles, minority groups in the northern and southern parts of the country were encouraged by the US to revolt and rise up against the Hussein government. In northern Iraq, Kurds, a long-repressed ethnic group in the nation, struck at government forces and captured towns in their region throughout March of 1991. Whatever success the Kurdish forces experienced, however, was soon wiped out by a strong Iraqi counterattack, using ground forces and helicopter gunships to attack the rebels. The Bush Administration, wary of being drawn into a civil war, did not provide military support for the Kurds, and within days, the rebellion was crushed and any lost territory was reclaimed.
Fearing Iraqi retribution, more than 1 million, and possibly as many as 3 million, ethnic Kurds headed for the rugged, mountainous Turkish border and set up camp. Disease, cold weather, and the rough conditions, not the mention the Iraqi Army in pursuit, killed hundreds of refugees, particularly the very young and very old, each day.
In early April, the United Nations passed resolutions against Iraq's actions and requested that member nations take steps to assist and protect the Kurds. President Bush authorized the US military to participate in aid operations, as well as to provide protection for the Kurds.
Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, used heavily in the Gulf War, rapidly became the hub of activity for Operation Provide Comfort. On April 7, the first airdrops of food and supplies to the Kurds began, an effort that would eventually involve more than 30 countries as part of the coalition. The major forces involved were from the US, UK, France, and Turkey, the latter increasingly worried about Kurdish influence on its own population.
By mid-April, the UN established formal refugee camps in Northern Iraq, with US Special Forces and US Marines taking the lead in oversight and operation of the facilities.
Unsure what Iraqi response would be to the sudden infusion of Western aircraft and troops within its borders, the US established a large military force to assist in the operation's security, and A-10s played a major part in that. While F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft established a "no fly zone" above the 36th parallel, an E-3 AWACS plane coordinated air operations for the region and tanker aircraft provided refueling support. Heavily loaded transport aircraft on their way to make parachute drops of supplies to the Kurds were increasingly vulnerable to ground fire, and with the fluid masses of refugees and scattered Iraqi forces nearby, it was established that escort aircraft would be needed to protect the airdrops. With its slow speed, great visibility, and established reputation, the Warthog perfectly fit the bill.
A-10s from the 92 TFS deployed from Bentwaters, UK to Incirlik on April 6, and the first Hog missions were flown on the 7th and 8th. The initial role of the A-10s was actually to fly through the numerous valleys of Northern Iraq, help find the refugee camps, identify them for the transports, and then provide cover for the cargo planes as they dropped supplies.
An A-10 escorts an RAF C-130 during
Operation Provide Comfort
Source: Unknown, presumably DoD
For several weeks, until a temporary airstrips could be created and transport aircraft landed, the cross-shaped A-10s were the first sign to Kurdish refugees and watching Iraqi forces that an airdrop was coming. Flying low and ahead of the transports, A-10 pilots scanned for ground and helicopter threats to both the cargo aircraft and the refugees below.
Throughout May, this task was lessened as fewer and fewer airdrops were needed, but the A-10s out of Turkey still flew orbits over the area, on the watch of Iraqi ground movement. In mid-May, the tense nature of the situation was revealed when an A-10 and an F-16 were taken under fire by Iraqi anti-aircraft guns in two separate incidents. In general, though, threats were light, although Iraqi units were out in force.
Operation Provide Comfort officially ended on July 24, 1991 after 40,000 sorties delivered more than 17,000 tons of supplies to the Kurds. About 80 percent of the villages destroyed by the Iraqi counteroffensive were restored, and increasingly many of the refugees returned to their homes. At the same time, Operation Provide Comfort II began, with less of a focus on humanitarian relief and more of an emphasis on banning Iraqi action north of the 36th Parallel. Within weeks, the ground elements of Provide Comfort pulled out of Iraq, leaving only small units behind and focusing almost entirely on air units to "keep the peace."
Operation Provide Comfort II (July 24, 1991 - December 31, 1996)
For the five years that the operation existed, the US Air Force flew about 60 percent of the sorties for Provide Comfort II, and more than 4,500 sorties in 1996 alone. Some supply missions continued throughout Northern Iraq, but the operation was largely military in nature, with the purpose to contain Hussein in the region.
Threats to the aircraft were very real, and exchanges of fire isolated but frequent. In early 1993, events heated up greatly, with air to air kills against Iraqi fighters and ground strikes against air defense systems. What role the available A-10s played in the surge of fighting isn't clear, but it seems likely that action was limited to combat search and rescue operations, as the US relied heavily on high-altitude retaliatory strikes using precision-guided weapons during this time.
In 1995, the UN assumed control of the small remaining humanitarian portion of Operation Provide Comfort II, leaving just a combat role for the patrolling planes above, as part of Operation Northern Watch.
Operation Northern Watch (January 1, 1997 - Present)
An A-10 Prepared for a CSAR Mission
Incirlik Air Base, Turkey
The sorties of Provide Comfort I and II turned into Operation Northern Watch. For years, and even to the present day, aircraft from Incirlik Air Base have conducted near daily sorties over Northern Iraq, and shooting incidents have become extremely common.
Most of the combat sorties have not involved the A-10, but instead F-16CJ Wild Weasels, F-15E Strike Eagles, or RAF attack aircraft. From about 1994 on, there was no A-10 presence in the region until about a year ago, when A-10s were again stationed at Incirlik, this time for CSAR duty.
Speaking in an interview in January 2001, an A-10 pilot assigned to the 303rd EFS, call sign "Rags" (names of Northern Watch aircrew are not published), spoke of the airplane's suitability for the task of CSAR:
"What makes the A-10 an outstanding aircraft is its ability to survive and return home even after taking several hits from heavy armor emplacements," he said.
Although A-10s aren't the only aircraft capable of performing the role of "Sandy," or CSAR mission commander, they are by far the most frequent and the most effective. As the mission commander, a Sandy pilot coordinates all of the other aircraft in the region, from escorting fighters to the actual rescue helicopters. In addition, he has control of his own flight and its weapons and can support the rescue with ground fire as needed. It's a task not too dissimilar to the forward air controller role tasked to the A-10 fleet, but with the added stress of coordinating a rescue operation that can include dozens of aircraft.
"When a pilot goes down it's busy and chaotic up there," said Rags. "The sandy mission commander must know the capabilities of all the other aircraft in the AOR; he must know everything from how much fuel they hold to what kind of armament they take. It's a difficult task, but it's a task that sandy mission commanders train for over and over again."
That quote, in fact, sums up the entire history of post-war operations over Northern Iraq; difficult work, and something performed countless times since 1991. As of this writing, there's no sign that the patrols over Northern Watch are subsiding, but the A-10s have been replaced in the CSAR role by the unlikely choice of the F-16, specifically the 510th Fighter Wing. The reason? According to Maj. Curt Miller of the 31st Fighter Wing, "There just aren’t enough A-10s,” which says something about both the operational tempo sustained by the USAF in the past decade and the constraints placed on a smaller and smaller A-10 fleet. How does a "fast mover" like the F-16 perform a task handled by the much slower A-10? The article states:
The A-10 goes in low and slow, “and we may not do that,” Miller said of the Fighting Falcons. “Our biggest strength is laser-guided bombs. No question. We go about it in different ways, but we are extremely effective in carrying out that role."
An Armorer Checks a Flare Pod on an A-10,
Incirlik Air Base, Turkey
DoD Photo (and thanks to 'Dice-man' for the correction)
Southern Iraq: PSYOPS, Bombs, and CSAR
To the south, A-10s have also taken place in patrolling the southern no-fly zone, set up after a situation similar to the Kurdish uprising occurred with local Shiites in the days following the Gulf War. In addition, the southern no-fly zone provides an early warning of sorts for any future Iraqi attack on Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. The bulk of operations are patrols flown as part of Operation Southern Watch.
Four U.S. Air Force A-10A Thunderbolts shimmer in the desert heat waves
as they taxi out for a combat patrol mission over Iraq from the
Ahmed Al-Jaber Air Base, Kuwait, on March 12, 1998.
Operation Southern Watch (August 27, 1992 - Present)
Operations over southern Iraq have taken on a similar profile as those over the north. Operation Southern Watch involves a wider range of units, however, including naval aviation forces stationed on aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf.
However, just like their peers in the north, the missions are dangerous, repetitive, and without a visible end. The A-10 has played a role disproportionate to the small numbers of Warthogs stationed in the region, and have even widened the scope of missions performed by the aircraft and its aircrew.
BLU-109 penetrating bombs, Mark 84 general purpose bombs, AGM-65 Maverick,
AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles are pre-positioned for quick loading
onto aircraft near the runway at Ahmed Al-Jaber Air Base, Kuwait, on March 6, 1998.
An A-10 is taking off in the background.
In the years immediately following the Gulf War, the A-10 has been a constant presence in the region. Starting in 1994, a permanent deployment of Hogs has flown out of Ahmed al-Jaber Air Base in Kuwait, typically in strength of around a dozen aircraft. The responsibility for this deployment, as with the deployment to Turkey previously mentioned, has been rotated among the remaining Active Duty, Air Guard, and Air Force Reserve units flying the A-10. In recent years, Reserve and ANG crews from Missouri, Connecticut, Maryland, North Carolina, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania, among others, have rotated through Ahmed al-Jaber. Active Duty A-10 units from around the world (with the exception of those in Osan, Korea) have carried the majority of the deployments in Kuwait, however.
Staff Sgt. Edward Evans guides an A-10 Thunderbolt to its parking position after
its return from patrolling the no-fly-zone over Southern Iraq on Feb. 27, 1998,
in support of Operation Southern Watch.
One of the primary roles for the A-10 aircrew in the region is CSAR, just as it is for those in the north. Warthogs remain on alert status at the air base to rapidly respond should one of the aircraft patrolling the southern no-fly zone be downed. A-10 pilot Capt. Ron Stuewe said in an interview in 1998 that the CSAR roles was "the best mission in the Air Force," adding "Rescuing someone from an unfortunate incident where the priority is getting that guy back so he can look forward to another day, is a sense of accomplishment."
Stuewe's choice of an A-10 assignment, in fact, was partly because of the wide variety of mission.
"I chose the A-10 because of the missions we fly, and the A-10 community -- from the pilots to those turning wrenches on the flight line," he said. "There will never be a movie about an A-10, and a lot of people don't even know what an A-10 is, but an Army guy on the ground knows what a Hog is."
Airman 1st Class Brian Swanson secures two AIM-9 air-to-air missiles on an
A-10 Thunderbolt after the aircraft returns from patrolling the no-fly-zone over
Southern Iraq on Feb. 27, 1998, in support of Operation Southern Watch.
The Hog has been used for much more than CSAR out of Kuwait, however. In addition to flying patrols inside the no-fly zone, A-10s have guided in retaliatory strikes and launched attacks of their own.
The southern region has also flared up on occasion, with periods of fairly intense combat. The most notable of these was a short air campaign in late 1998 called Operation Desert Fox.
U.S. Air Force A-10A Thunderbolt ground crewmen run from the aircraft
after performing final inspections and giving approval to launch from
Ahmed Al-Jaber Air Base, Kuwait, on March 12, 1998, for a
combat patrol mission over Iraq.
Operation Desert Fox (December 16-20, 1998)
The actions leading up to Desert Fox had been brewing for several months prior. Following a period in which Iraq was not cooperating with UN Weapons Inspector teams, a limited four-night air campaign was launched. An earlier strike, planned for November, was cancelled while aircraft were in mid-air when Iraq appeared to make concessions regarding surprise inspections by the UN teams, who were looking for information about Iraq's program for building Weapons of Mass Destruction.
The goals of Desert Fox were to strike at facilities that aided Iraq's ability to produce, store, maintain, and deliver those weapons, and the attacks included strikes on about 100 targets. These included integrated air defenses, command and control facilities, weapons development facilities, Republican Guard barracks, airfields, and an oil refinery.
In addition to US and USMC aircraft flying from the Persian Gulf, USAF B-52 and B-1 bombers, and Royal Air Force and USAF planes from nearby bases, Tomahawk cruise missiles were used as well. Given the nature of the strikes and the type of targets, A-10s did not seem to play a significant role in most of the Desert Fox strikes. They did, however, carry out local strikes from their base in Kuwait and stayed on alert for any Iraqi armored attack on the Kingdom.
One of the roles of the A-10 community during Desert Fox, though, took on a new flavor. A-10s were used to drop psychological warfare pamphlets over Iraqi troop concentrations near Kuwait, urging the soldiers not to threaten Kuwait.
The success of Desert Fox's 650 sorties is widely disputed but is generally regarded to have had little impact. Iraq did not put up a significant fight, it appears, and tensions continue to this day, as very likely does their weapons program. UN inspectors have not returned to Iraq since the action.
Iraq has continued its game of cat and mouse with Allied aircraft since, and in fact, even shortly after Desert Fox ended. A-10s were involved in an incident on May 17, 1999 and assisted with attacks on air defense targets near the towns of Abu Sukhayar, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, and An Nasiriyah, about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad. The strikes were prompted by an Iraqi AAA attack on patrolling aircraft, one of more than 180 such attacks since the end of Desert Fox at that time.
To this day, Allied pilots flying over the southern no-fly zone come under AAA and SAM fire, and the A-10s based in Kuwait continue to stand ready to perform CSAR as needed. In fact, as of the publication date of this article, there have been more than 275 incidents of Iraqi antiaircraft fire in the no fly zones...in the year 2001 alone.
The decade that roared in with an unprecedented air-land-sea battle against Iraq ended with the apparently never-ending mission of patrols along its northern and southern regions. A-10s were used throughout, and have proved their value against threats in the region in all situations.
The pilot of a U.S. Air Force A-10A Thunderbolt monitors the cockpit instruments
as he runs up to the military power throttle setting before taking off from
Ahmed Al-Jaber Air Base, Kuwait, on March 12, 1998, for a combat patrol
mission over Iraq.
HOGS OVER THE BALKANS
The Persian Gulf was hardly the only region where the end of the Cold War brought with it hot tensions. In Yugoslavia, old and new ethnic and nationalistic differences flared and civil war waged as state by state, the nation came apart at the seams. Although there were earlier conflicts in Slovenia and Croatia, the world's attention focused on Bosnia-Herzegovina, a heavily Muslim region in active conflict with Serbian forces within its borders, supplied and supported by the government of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia proper.
THE BALKANS, PART ONE: BOSNIA - HERZEGOVINA
Painting: 'Hawgs On Guard' by Rick Herter
Available at AviatorArt.com
Operation Deny Flight (12 April 1993 to 20 December 1995)
From 1992 on, A-10s were again on the forefront of a conflict. Recognizing the vulnerable position of UN forces as well as the Bosnian population to Serb air and ground attack, the UN and NATO began flying patrols over the disputed territory in an attempt to ban fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft over Bosnia, as well as provide CAS support to UN troops on the ground near geographic "Safe Havens" outlined by the international community. This mission was called Operation Deny Flight.
It proved to be a large strain on a shrinking US military, leading to long overseas deployments to support it, as well as high operational tempos. In 1994 alone, the 52nd Fighter Wing's O/A-10s out of Spangdahlem AB were deployed to Aviano Air Base in Italy for more than 190 days. Twelve of the Wing's 18 Warthogs were part of Deny Flight, mostly flying orbits over the disputed land.
That relatively benign task grew hotter in early 1994, when several incidents occurred, including a shootdown of four Serb aircraft (February), a CAS mission near Gorazde (April) carried out by F-16s and F/A-18s, and attacks on several NATO aircraft, which were either downed or fired at by ground defenses. As the situation on the ground deteriorated and safe areas fell under increasing attack, the A-10s were finally put into combat action.
Following the seizure of some heavy weapons by Bosnian Serbs from a warehouse in Ilidza, a series of sorties were launched to locate and destroy the captured equipment. On August 5, two A-10s located and strafed one of the pieces, a WWII-era M-18 tank destroyer. Following the attack, which was believed to have been successful, the Serbs returned the remaining heavy weapons.
A-10s entered the picture a little over a month later as well, when a OA/10 and two RAF Jaguars (presumably controlled by the OA-10 FAC) attacked a Serb tank located within the identified 20 mile "exclusion zone" around Sarajevo.
Operation Deliberate Force (29 August - 15 September 1995)
As fighting progressed, world opinion increasingly pointed to the distinct possibility of Western military intervention in the conflict on the behalf of the Bosnian Muslims.
Not-so-veiled threats were made that attacks by Serbian forces on the established Safe Areas would lead to further escalation by the West. As July approached, even more warnings were made that further Serb actions against the cities of Gorazde, Tuzla, Bihac and Sarajevo would be met with force. Apparently wishing to test NATO's resolve, Bosnian Serbs continued attacks on several safe areas, including a mortar attack on a crowded market in Sarajevo that killed or wounded dozens.
On August 30, 1995, NATO launched Operation Deliberate Force, an eleven-day air campaign aimed at about 50 Bosnian Serb positions. By the time it was over, more than 3,500 sorties had been flown and more than 1,000 bombs dropped. The US carried much of the burden of the attack, with about 65 percent of the sorties, followed by the UK, France, and The Netherlands. The nature of the conflict, and the political need to minimize NATO losses, essentially dictated the precision-guided munitions be used for the majority of the strikes...in total about three-quarters of the bombs dropped were PGMs.
In light of this, the role of the A-10 was somewhat muted during the action. Although it's certainly capable of carrying PGMs, the Warthog isn't the optimum platform for these bombs. That's not to say that the A-10 played a minor role in the conflict, however. Twelve O/A-10s flying out of Aviano provided a respectable ground attack force, and in fact only the F-16 and F/A-18 were used in larger numbers. Although it's difficult to ascertain exactly what missions were flown by Warthogs, it's known that more than 10,000 rounds of 30 mm. ammunition, 23 EO/IR Mavericks, more than 300 iron and cluster bombs, and 20 FFAR were expended by NATO forces. A scan through NATO's summary of the operations hints at several missions likely performed by the Aviano Warthogs.
8 Sept 1995
Nineteen CAS aircraft were re-tasked against eight fixed targets
8 Sept 1995
A third helo-borne reconnaissance mission to locate and rescue [downed French aircrew] was executed
- Weather was good and a thorough search of the area was performed without result
- Mission came under attack from small arms fire; suppressing fire was provided by escorting gunship and fighter aircraft
- Two helicopter crew members were wounded and a helo damaged on egress, but all mission aircraft/aircrew recovered safely
10 Sept 1995
At 1425, UN requested CAS support following BSA (Bosnian Serb Army) shelling of UN positions near the Tuzla airport; three flights of fighters supported the CAS request; two command bunkers and an artillery position were identified, targeted and successfully engaged
Several factors played into combat operations over Bosnia. Poor weather at times severely restricted visibility for the attacking aircraft, and low clouds and deep valleys below made low-level attacks perilous and put crews at much higher risk to ground fire. A typical day in Bosnia presented low valley fog in the mornings, followed by afternoon clearing, and then increased storminess later in the day.
In addition, the role of finding ground targets as a FAC, while at altitude, presented unique challenges. One Pentagon media briefer during the operation, a former FAC himself, put it this way:
Let's just take an example of trying to deliver a precision munition such as a laser-guided bomb or a Maverick which the weapons delivery parameters are somewhat similar for, and the aircrew would have the aircraft up about 15,000 feet and be in a slight descent, maybe no more than 10 to 15 degrees. But I'll try to put the distances into perspective for you of what goes on in terms of the aircrew looking out trying to deliver a weapon on a target, and I'll try to put it in perspective of some distances that you all can relate to here in the Washington area to give you a feel.
Let's say we had a tank at the base of the Capitol building. In order to deliver a precision munition against that tank, the aircrew would have to acquire the target from a distance away of about where Arlington Cemetery is. So that's about the distance, a 15,000 feet slant range. That kind of slant range -- distance from Arlington to the Capitol -- is about where they would have to see the target the size of a tank.
Granted, the equipment on board the aircraft -- you're not doing all this with a naked eye, although you had a general idea of target area from target study that you're looking out. You see the Capitol or you see the general area that you know from target study you're supposed to be in, but you have equipment on board that allows you to see up much closer onto the target through electrical optical systems that help you make sure you've got the right target. Nevertheless, about from Arlington Cemetery to the Capitol is where you've got to see it.
You need to start lasing the target for a laser-guided weapon about the time you come over the Lincoln Memorial, and release it about that point as you pass over the Lincoln Memorial. Then you need to start your recovery maneuver so that you don't go any closer than where the Washington Monument is to the Capitol. Those are some pretty good-sized distances we're talking about.
Doing this, you're doing it all at an airspeed of about 500 knots -- which to put that in perspective, at that airspeed you can travel from the Beltway to the Pentagon in a minute. There are those who wish to get here in the early morning hours that way. It would be nice to be able to do it in a minute, but that gives you a feel for the speed.
Another relationship of the speed would be if you're traveling along on the Beltway out there at 60 miles an hour, it's ten times as fast as you see things going by. So it's a substantially increased speed from what you'd see in a car, as you would expect; but you know how fast things pass you by when you're looking up close, and even off at a distance. It's ten times that fast.
So things are happening quickly, and this is if everything's perfect. You throw onto this that a person who's delivering the weapon can't be looking out at the target all the time. They've got to take into consideration what's going on around them. There are other aircraft they're having to watch out for, and, more importantly, having to look out for SAMs and AAA, because we get target fixation, as we call it. That's how people get shot down. They're not paying attention to what's happening, they're having to pay attention to the weapons delivery, but there's a lot of other things they're having to look at.
Smoke, weather, as you can see here, and just general atmospheric conditions can also cause problems.
NATO and the US considered Deliberate Force a victory, as the siege of Sarajevo was lifted as a result of the strikes, and eventually, the warring parties met in Dayton, Ohio to reconstruct a post-war arrangement for the region.
Operation Decisive Edge, Deliberate Guard, Joint Guard, and Joint Forge (1996 - Present)
USAF Crew Chief and Pilot at Aviano AB ready an A-10 for an
Operation Deliberate Forge mission over Bosnia and Herzegovina
on Feb. 5, 1999
The end of the conflict and the subsequent signing of the Dayton Peace Accords may have formally ended the fighting, but animosities remained and exist to this day. Through a succession of "Deny Flight"-type of operations, NATO, led by the US, have continued patrols over Bosnia in order to prevent further outbreaks of open violence. A-10s have played a major role in that, especially active duty units like the 81st FS.
Even about six months after the end of open hostilities, the threat to NATO aircraft, especially low-flying A-10s, was a very real one. In an interview in May 1996, Lt. Col. John H. Bordelon, commander of the 47th Fighter Squadron operating out of Aviano, stated that a major threat was shoulder-fired weapons controlled by irregular forces on the ground, who typically wouldn't consider themselves a party to the peace talks. Bordelon said that they were fairly confident that both sides were no longer using radar-guided SAM systems, as stipulated by the treaty. He expressed frustration, however, at being on the watch for the smaller, man-portable systems, possibly being operated by small groups of soldiers.
"We don't know where they are. So, there's always the risk of some renegade taking a shot at you," he said.
Bordelon's unit was also on the cutting edge of A-10 technology, though, as the unit began to operate all hours of the day using helmet-mounted night vision goggles. The new gear was introduced in 1994 and the unit used the goggles operationally in April 1996 while on rotation to Aviano. While many USAF aircraft are equipped with pods such as LANTIRN, the A-10 community had long been forced to improvise, using flares and their IIR Mavericks during the Gulf War to find and kill targets at night. The NVGs permitted aircrews to fly unassisted and without the drawbacks of flares, such as their limited burn time and the fact that they often light up both target and the attacker.
In an interview, Col. Jim Mills, Operations Group commander for the 917th, said the goggles are "a critical addition to our repertoire."
"If the Army wants to fight 24-hours a day, we've got to be able to support them 24-hours a day. NVGs now give us the capability. They don't turn night into day, but it's close enough," said Mills.
The dangerous terrain below at first necessitated that all night flights be conducts at altitudes in excess of 2,000 feet for safety, but as pilots became more comfortable wearing the NVGs, altitude restrictions were lowered. The cockpit on the A-10s needed to be adjusted so that their lights didn't wash out the goggles as the pilot scanned the instruments, however, teething problems aside, the pilots quickly found that the goggle permitted great improvements.
"Using the current generation of NVGs is like day flying -- but everything looks green," said A-10 pilot Capt. Bruce Miller. "Now, we can go anywhere to look for targets, attack them ourselves, or mark them with flares so someone else can drop bombs on them," Miller said. "The goggles let us to do all the things we can do in the daytime -- we can see the ground, the other airplanes -- and they allow us to do aggressive maneuvering.
"You can see the other guy shooting at you -- the muzzle flashes, sometimes the bullets coming at you. The situational awareness is so much higher," Miller said. "If you see a guy smoking cigarette, he's toast. You know exactly where he is."
Using their experience with the gear, the unit then went on to train other USAF units in the operation of the goggles. To reach the skill level of using the goggle tactically, the pilots are required to fly two FAC-guided missions 25 hours of night flight time.
Once again, the A-10 community expanded its bag of tricks, pushing the aircraft and aircrew far beyond what the designers and supporters of the A-10 could have dreamed when it was created.
THE BALKANS, PART TWO: KOSOVO
Two U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolts form up before dropping away from a tanker aircraft
for a mission against targets in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia on April 22, 1999,
during NATO Operation Allied Force.
Just three years after the bombing campaign over Bosnia-Herzegovina, NATO was once again at war with Serbian forces. This time, the conflict was over Kosovo, another region of Yugoslavia experiencing ethnic unrest and conflict and which had also sought independence from the country.
Starting in late 1998, the world's attention was focused on the conditions of ethnic Muslim Albanians living in Kosovo, who made up a vast majority of the population, but who had been increasingly repressed by the ruling Serbian minority in power. Long-simmering ethnic distrust and strife came to a head in early January 1999 with the killing of 45 ethnic Albanians by Serb forces. NATO began to stress that military options would come into play if Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic did not begin to comply with conditions set in a 1998 cease-fire negotiated with rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). By the end of the month, the US had sent more naval air power to the Adriatic Sea to back up the threats, and tensions steadily mounted in the region. On January 30, NATO ambassadors gave the go-ahead for the use of military force if Milosevic didn't comply with the 1998 terms within a week.
More talks immediately ensued between the KLA and Yugoslavian officials, as President Clinton committed US forces to any future NATO action and ordered more than 50 aircraft deployed to the region in preparation for such action. A peace plan was conditionally agreed to by both sides in late February, however, Serbian officials refused to sign the document, objecting to one of its conditions that allowed NATO troops to operate in Kosovo. Soon, media reports increasingly focused on the massive flow of ethnic Albanian refugees from the region (about 270,000 as of the middle of March), as well as reported atrocities being committed against them by Serbs. Despite intense diplomatic efforts, Serbian officials refused to sign a final version of the peace agreement. On March 24, 1999 NATO initiated military action against Yugoslavia, with the stated intent to stop the Serbian offensive against civilians in Kosovo and to damage Serbia militarily. The Hog was about to earn another blood chit in the skies over the Balkans.
A-10 refueling from a KC-135 tanker in February, 1999
Operation Allied Force (March 24 - June 20, 1999)
The initial NATO strikes, the first time in 50 years that the alliance attacked a sovereign nation, were spearheaded by cruise missiles, precision-guided missiles and bombs and other "smart" weapons designed to minimize casualties to civilians, while focusing on Serbian air defenses and infrastructure. In fact, in his book "Waging Modern War," Supreme Allied Commander General Wesley Clark states that the basic outline of Operation Allied Force was designed more than a year prior, and based largely on a smaller model of the campaign launched against Iraq in 1991. It was largely a US plan, focusing on several levels of targets, both of strategic nature in Serbia and later on the tactical level in Kosovo. The role of the A-10 in the early strikes of Allied Force appears to have been minimal, due largely to poor weather, as well as the type of precision attack favored by the Allies at this stage. There was also a very clear political and military statement by Allied leaders that NATO forces were being exceptionally careful to avoid any casualties among the striking aircraft and crew, and relying heavily on high-altitude strikes to hit targets, for fear of taking losses due to Serbian AAA and missile fire.
As of March 30, US and NATO forces publicly were stating that the A-10s, based at Aviano AB and Gioia del Colle, Italy, had not been used in offensive operations to date, citing the continued strength of the existing Serbian air defense system. During a briefing, US Admiral Scott Fry specifically addressed the issue of the A-10s.
With respect to the A-10s, you get back to the issue of the robustness of his air defense systems. It isn't just the mobile SAMs and the communication links between them and the radars, but there are thousands of MANPADs, and once you get down below 15,000 feet with the weather as bad as it's been, but even in good weather, worse in good weather, you're going to place our pilots at a tremendous amount of risk, and we've got to weigh that as we proceed with this campaign.
What they didn't state at that time was that although the use of the A-10 had been light up to that point, the aircraft had already played a significant part in a mission that would become part of the Warthog's repertoire just as much as close air support was....combat search and rescue.
An Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II taxis through the rain at Aviano Air Base, Italy,
before taking off on a mission against targets in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
on April 7, 1999, during NATO Operation Allied Force.
Hogs to the Rescue - CSAR
On March 27, 1999, an F-117 Nighthawk "stealth fighter" was downed by Serbian air defenses about 25 miles from Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia. It was a night of terrible weather, but as soon as word came that the pilot was down behind enemy lines, a three-helicopter search and rescue team headed by Capt. James L. Cardoso in a MH-53 Pave Low helicopter scrambled from their base in Croatia. The rescue force reached the general area before any supporting assets did, and Serbian forces were jamming and sending false reports, so the helicopters landed just outside of the Serbian border to await more Allied units to assist in the operation. Realizing that they would need more fuel to conduct the rescue, the force took off and refueled from an MC-130, all in a lights-out configuration and just a few miles inside the Croatian border. Serbian radar would easily spot the formation if they climbed to a higher altitude, so Cardoso arranged for the refueling to be conducted using nothing but night vision goggles, and hitting the tanker at an altitude of about 700 feet.
While the helicopters were preparing to cross into Serbia, the commander of the rescue operation, Capt. John Cherrey, was trying to determine the pilot's location on the ground from his two-ship A-10 flight, call sign Sandy. As he conducted his search, SAM radars repeatedly washed over him, but by taking such risks, Cherrey was able to identify the downed pilot's location to within a mile. The helicopters raced across the border at less than 100 feet, flying without terrain following radar and using only night vision goggles.
The forces learned from the downed pilot that he was near a road intersection, essentially surrounded by unknowing search teams and dogs. Wanting to make the Serbs believe the pilot was elsewhere, Capt. Cherrey flew his A-10 flight away from pilot's actual location and into the range of nearby SAM batteries.
With his infrared rescue beacon broken and with nearby Serbs temporarily distracted but homing in on his radio transmissions, the F-117 pilot was ordered to fire a flare to mark his exact position. As the helicopters watched, less than half a mile away, the flare cut through the night, alerting everyone nearby to his hiding spot. Cardoso placed his Pave Low between the downed pilot and a group of approaching Serbs, while an MH-60 landed next to the pilot and disgorged a team of pararescuemen to authenticate the pilot's identity and grab him. The rescue force then exited Serbia at treetop level, with the smaller MH-60 wedged between the two larger Pave Lows for protection. The rescue force dodged gunfire and searchlights to land safely at an airbase in Bosnia. During the course of the rescue, the MC-130 itself, both A-10s, and the helicopters all had been refueled at dangerously close locations to the Serbian border, and in the case of the A-10s, with very little fuel remaining on-board.
“There’s a great sense of relief in that the guys I was working with were doing such great work,” said Cherrey in an interview after the conflict. “Every time we would come up against an obstacle, one of these guys would say, ‘Hey, I’ve got it.’”
For their part in the rescue, Cardoso and MH-60 pilot Chad Franks earned Silver Stars for their performance under fire, as did Capt. Cherrey, the only A-10 pilot to earn the medal during the conflict.
First Blood for the Hogs
As late as the first week of April, NATO commanders were still addressing media inquiries of when the Italian-based Warthogs would be flying offensive missions on their own. They began to indicate, however, that the A-10 pilots had started to fly in larger strike packages, serving in roles of Airborne Forward Air Controllers (AFAC) and CSAR support.
On April 2, a NATO commander said that the Warthogs "have been very helpful in helping other planes keep track of armored columns and deployments, so they can vector in to attack them. The A-10, also in part because of its loiter capability, is a very important part of the combat search and rescue operations."
That official line....that the A-10s were being used solely for observation, FAC, and CSAR, continued until April 7, when it was announced that in the previous 24 hours, A-10s, along with aircraft from the USS Roosevelt, participated in strikes in the southwest part of Kosovo against a set of nearly 30 targets. As NATO felt comfortable that the Serbian air defense system was being eroded, the Warthogs began to see more and more ground attack missions tasked their way.
On April 8, the world saw the Hog in action from those initial strikes when video from an A-10 attack was highlighted at a NATO press briefing.
On this particular film, same one, but you'll see a highlighted area in the upper right hand corner of the screen, and you'll see flashes. This is the same one I showed you a moment ago. That's AAA, air-to-air artillery, being fired at this A-10, probably either 23mm or 37mm. You can see the flashes coming on. He sees this himself as he's coming in.
The ground flashes and then the tracer airbursts, you'll see that usually only the tracer is about every fifth or sixth bullet, so he's taking what we would consider moderate to heavy AAA all the way in on this run. So as I explained earlier, this is not without risk.
Later in the briefing, another A-10 video is shown, this time highlighting an aborted mission on a convoy.
The next video we'll show you will be that we are picking up convoys in the engagement area. This is a Maverick on an A-10, again, with a convoy. You'll see he has to break this off. He does not attack it. The reason is he's being fired at. But he does relay that information of that convoy back to other aircraft, and our understanding is that was probably attacked by other aircraft later.
A-10 ground crew inspecting aircraft
Casualties of War
As April rolled on, the opportunity to find fairly 'easy' targets, like convoys, decreased rapidly as Serbian forces began to hide their vehicles more effectively and not rely on daytime road traffic. That, combined with the high altitudes that most of the NATO missions were being flown at, began to severely task A-10s and other aircraft from more effectively hitting targets. In the case of an A-10 flying in the FAC role, the difficult terrain below, the relatively poor high altitude performance of the aircraft, the lack of sophisticated sensors on board, and the small, hard-to-find targets below made the task especially difficult. However, the strength of the aircraft, mainly its long loiter time and survivability features, made the Hog a very key player in the air campaign. Four additional A-10s were part of an increase in US aircraft to the region on April 10, along with about two dozen F-16CJ "Wild Weasels," KC-135 and KC-10 tankers, and C-130 transports.
By the middle of April, NATO was increasingly feeling pressure from a number of strikes that had killed civilians. On April 21, an errant and possibly malfunctioning cluster bomb landed in the city of Nis, killing several and causing the weapon to be removed from US strikes for several days. On April 12, a train on a bridge was hit and 10 civilians reportedly died. Two days later, Yugoslavia claimed that upwards of 70 civilians were killed when a refugee vehicle convoy was attacked by NATO aircraft. A post-war speech by Brigadier General Daniel P. Leaf suggests that an earlier flight of F-16s acting as FACs had cleared the attack, but after some confusion about the targets following the first strikes, Cub Flight, a two-ship of OA-10s acting as FACs, was asked to come into the area and better identify the targets. According to Leaf, Cub flight had clearly identified military vehicles in the convoy, but also said that multicolor and possibly civilian vehicles were part of the convoy as well, leading to the termination of the attack.
Regardless of the truth behind this incident, the cost of operating at high altitudes, and in conditions that often favored the defender, was taking its toll. As information came out about the attacks, more questions were raised about the process for dropping ordinance. At one press briefing on April 14, Major General Wald, a former FAC pilot himself, addressed some of the challenges of the position.
But I can say that the way these missions work in Kosovo with a forward air controller -- either an A-10 or an F-16 forward air controller -- is that the forward air controller will be cued to a target area by possibly an off-board sensor or some other report, or possibly he will be looking in the area himself and find what could be a military target. That cueing could come from Predator, could come from JSTARS, could come from, once again, from the pilot himself finding the target.
In the case of an A-10, he will find the target; he will identify it actually using binoculars, very slow speed -- and reports I've heard today and from last night they're taking heavy AAA and significant SAMs and MANPADS were fired both last night and today. He loiters over the area to identify the target. They're trained for identifying military targets, as you can imagine, and at that time will call in another set of fighters, probably two, to expend their ordnance on the target. But before they do that, the FAC, forward air controller, will talk to the other set of fighters and make sure they both have 100 percent assurance that they have the correct target, they both identify it, and there's a verbiage that goes on between the two of them, and just as my answer's taking a long time, it takes a long time for this to happen...
Q: So it's eyes on.
Major General Wald: It's eyes on and conformation both from the forward air controller and the pilot itself -- the air crew that's going to drop the weapon -- and the forward air controllers can self-expand, but it's eyes on, and it's dual-control from the standpoint there is verification both from the pilot dropping the bomb and the forward air controller through a set of dialogues that goes on. And then, and not until then, is the pilot cleared in to drop the bomb. And once the forward air controller is assured that this pilot is dropping on the right target, he will clear him to drop the bomb. Then from bomb fall until target impact is about 10 to 15 seconds, so through that 10 to 15 seconds, it's once again basically you're at the mercy of fate. But the fact of the matter is, in both the mind of the pilot and the air crew that's dropping the bomb, you have to be in your own mind 100 percent sure of what you're going on before you actually release. So it's about as positive control on a weapons release as you can get.
Q: And tractors from the air, filled with people's mattresses, don't look like military convoys, would you think?
Major General Wald: I've been a forward air controller in Vietnam; I've flown in Bosnia these types of missions, dozens of times; I've flown them over Iraq, and I can honestly say that if there's any doubt whatsoever in either the pilot or the air crew that's dropping the bombs, the FAC or the air crew's minds, they will not drop. I can also tell you that it's easy to tell the difference between a tractor and a tank. So yes, I'd answer that you can tell. If there's any doubt, you just don't drop.
Considering that the primary tool used by OA-10 pilots for identifying targets were a pair of space-stabilized 12x and 15x binoculars, the job of FAC was a very difficult and tasking one. Despite a heavy reliance on remotely piloted vehicles, reconnaissance flights, and satellite imagery, the most reliable 'eyes on the scene' over Kosovo were still a USAF A-10 pilot with binoculars spotting targets otherwise hidden from sight.
This job is superbly outlined in an article that appeared in the August 2001 issue of Flight Journal Magazine. Author Phil "Goldie" Haun is currently a Lieutenant Colonel and a student at the School for Advanced Airpower Studies at Maxwell AFB. However, he has more than 2,000 hours flying the A-10 in operational assignments in England, Korea, and Germany. During Allied Force, he was the squadron weapon officer for the 81st Fighter Squadron at Gioia del Colle, Italy, and flew 37 combat missions. For his actions on the April 15, 1999 mission he wrote about in the article, "A-10s over Kosovo," he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the article clearly illustrates why....between the aircraft he was controlling as a AFAC and his own two-ship of A-10s, he helped destroy five artillery pieces, an APC, five Frog 7 launchers, and an ammunition storage trailer. As Haun says, "Not bad for a day's work."
The article also clearly illustrates not only the difficult task of an AFAC, but the challenges that the campaign handed to A-10 crews. First and foremost, the aircraft is not a superb high-altitude performer. During Desert Storm, for instance, it wasn't uncommon for fully-loaded A-10s to cross the Iraqi border at 20,000 feet plodding along at 200 knots.....barely traveling faster than a WWII heavy bomber. Haun's situation is less severe than that, but several times in the article he points out the long delay in climbing to altitude (generally hinted at about 15,000-20,000 ft.), finding the target at that height, and launching an attack, while his wingman stays above. While the one A-10 climbs back up, the other covers. This is not an aircraft known for its rate of climb.
Serbian tank killed by then-Major Haun
(Unrelated to story)
What is also very apparent is the FAC's difficult task in coordinating large numbers of aircraft. For this mission, Haun is the commander of a 45-ship package over eastern Kosovo, and handles aircraft from Canada, the USAF, and the RAF as they come in for attacks, one after the other, in an area around the towns of Gnjilane ('G-Town') and Bujanovac. He states that during the course of Allied Force, he coordinated attacks from aircraft from the USAF, USN, Canada, Britain, Italy, France, Spain, Turkey, the Netherlands, and Belgium...all from a single-seat plane with a couple of maps (1:50 and 1:250 are mentioned), a radio, and a pair of binoculars.
Near G-Town, Haun and his wingman, 'Dirt,' first investigate some revetments that held armor just two days prior. During that mission, Haun was coordinating some USAF and Belgian Air Force strike aircraft when they saw the smoke trail from a MANPADS coming his way. Both he and Dirt jinked successfully and waited for their first set of strikers to come into the area. A flight of USAF F-15Es was already low on fuel when they arrived, and the pair of A-10s again dodged another MANPADS while attempting an unsuccessful (hung weapon) Maverick attack on the targets themselves. The target is about to be passed to the Belgian F-16s when Haun and Dirt needed refueling themselves. When they returned to the area, weather had closed in the target.
AAA gun killed by F-15E, controlled by an OA-10 FAC
On this day, however, the weather is better. Haun and Dirt have already refueled on the flight from Italy on what will end up being a five hour mission....one hour from Italy to Macedonia for a tanking, one hour over Kosovo, back to Macedonia for another tanking, back to Kosovo for another hour, and then an hour-long flight home. After finding the previous day's revetments empty, the pair search for more targets around G-Town. They find another set of revetments to the east, filled with eight artillery pieces and two APCs. The first strikers in are CF-18 from the Canadian Air Force, armed with laser-guided 500 lb. bombs. Hoping to show the Hornets where the target is, Haun drops a 500 lb bomb onto one set of revetments. It's a dud. Backup plan......now it's time to talk the Canadians (Merc 11) onto the target.
"I respond to Merc 11's check in, "Copy. We are just east of the target and setting up for another mark. Call visual the factory that is just east of the huge town that is on the east/west hardball." G-town is then only large town in eastern Kosovo. Merc 11 has eyes on my flight, so the only town they can see is G-town. On the east side of G-town is an enormous factory complex next to the highway leading east out of town.
Merc 11 replies, "Copy. I see one factory. Large structure has a blue-roofed building to the west." Merc 11 not only responds that he sees the factory, but he confirms it as well by giving a positive description of a distinct feature. I am confident that he has the correct factory in sight.
"That's affirmative. Let's use that factory east/west one unit. From the eastern side of factory, go two----let's make that three---units east on hardball. Then use factory from hardball. You'll see a pull-off on the north side of the hardball. Go one unit to the south off the hardball. In between two small towns, you'll see some light revetments." I continue the talk-on by setting the length of the factory complex east to west as a unit. I treat that unit as a yardstick and measure the distance along the road to another feature (a pull-off from the highway). I talk Merc 11 down between two towns where the artillery is lying.
Not a job for the faint of heart. After Merc identifies the target, the two flights confirm the location by Merc lasing the target so Haun can confirm it with their Pave Penny pod. After confirmation, Merc flight moves south 10 miles, and sets up his attack run. Two runs, two bombs, and two 'shacks' later, two artillery pieces are destroyed before Merc flight declares bingo fuel and departs from the area.
While Merc is attacking, Haun is just south, coordinating with the airborne ABCCC EC-130 aircraft for the next flight in, this time a pair of F-15E Strike Eagles ('Dragon' flight). While he's waiting, Haun pops one of the APCs with a Maverick. After getting a buddy spike from Dragon, Haun marks the target this time with White Phosphorous rockets, which Dragon sees and uses as a marker to commence his attack. Haun and Dirt head for the tanker.
When they finish topping off, it's time to move on to a new area, since G-Town is now closed in from weather. The pair move to a large valley near the Macedonian border where Serbs have been fortifying positions for an expected NATO ground attack. On one hilltop near the town of Bujanovac, Haun spots six well-concealed revetments that are shaped differently, but which seem to have large caliber artillery in them....they are later identified as Frog-7 launchers.
Central Balkan Region
(with locations from the Flight Journal article highlighted
The next strikers up are RAF Harriers ('Dodge' flight), carrying cluster bombs. Haun uses Mk82s to mark the target now for Dirt, and begins to set up a "five line" for the RAF pilots.....IP, heading, distance, elevation, and coordinates. While he's doing that, he drops his map, which gets stuck under his seat. Conveniently at the same time, AAA fire from another hill come dangerously close. Haun and Dirt pull away from the target, try to reorient themselves, get in touch with the waiting Harriers, and plan an attack that will use the A-10s to suppress the AAA while the Harriers come in after the artillery. Haun clears the Harriers to enter the area and goes back to finding the now-silent AAA guns. He marks the artillery with another Mk82 and moves on his flight to cover the approach.
As I wait just west of the target, I again turn my attention to the AAA pits. I've taken a snapshot in my mind of where the AAA was coming from and the position of the pits. They are only visible when looking southwest to northeast. I do a belly check and I see them directly below me. I call on Fox Mike to Dirt, "OK, I know where those triple-A pits are now."
Dodge interrupts my call. "Requesting mark one minute thirty."
"Copy that." I turn my attention to Dirt. "Try to put in those Mark eighty-twos [on the artillery], and I'll extend to the northeast."
Dirt calls back, "Tell me when to roll in."
"Yeah, as soon as you can." Dirt drops his three bombs for direct hits on two of the revetments. The explosions carry huge secondaries.
"Visual, in hot." Dodge sees the mark and requests permission to attack. I clear him and watch as his CBU tears through two more revetments.
As Dodge resets his wingman to drop more CBU, I begin to focus on the AAA sites. I put my binoculars on the position and note four gun pits. They are tiny and impossible to lock up with a Maverick, but I still have my 30mm gun available to strafe them. As I consider my next move, I notice a large truck and a trailer, not more than 100 meters from the pits. It is barely visible in a tree line down a ravine. There is only one reason for that type of vehicle to be there next to AAA pits; it has to be the ammo truck - a far more lucrative target.
This decision is easy. As Dodge 62 begins his bomb run, I call up a Maverick. The AAA, which has been silent, begins to come up as Dodge's CBU rains down. AAA explodes in a string of pearls just beneath me. This is a pass I only want to make once. I get a steady cross on the truck and hammer down on the pickle button. It seems like an eternity before the 500 pounds of missile begin to move off the rail. In reality, it's less than a second, and as it accelerates toward the target, I pull off hard and begin jinking. It's going to take 20 seconds for impact, so I wait a few seconds before rolling the jet over.
The impact takes me by surprise. The missile slams directly into the trailer and sets off a series of secondaries such as I have never seen. Fire reaches for the sky like the Fourth of July.
"Unbelievable," is all the ever-cool Dirt can muster. More important, the AAA shuts down instantaneously, and Dodge 62 can call for his next mark. Completely out of bombs, I return to place two Willie Pete rockets on the site. Dodge 62 drops good CBU before the flight returns to base.
For more on Lt. Col. Haun's mission, be sure to read the August issue of Flight Journal. It establishes a fantastic description of the A-10 at war and the challenge of being an AFAC.
A-10 pilot pre-flighting his aircraft
New Targets and Close Calls
On May 2, the A-10 community nearly avoided a loss when a Hog flying near G-town was hit by a shoulder-launched missile at medium altitude, suffering engine damage and external damage to the aircraft. The Hog's engine cowling was ripped off and shown on Serb television as evidence of a downed aircraft. Given the type of damage suffered in the missile attack, it seems likely that the cowling shown on television was from the same A-10 that was hit. The pilot safely returned the aircraft to a friendly airbase in Skopje, Macedonia. The missile strike showed both the heavy use of MANPADS by Serbian forces, as well as the risk posed by these missiles, even at altitude.
Speaking of targets, A-10s were involved in strikes against more and more armor units, as hiding locations were identified. It was also confirmed that the Hogs had fired their tank-killing 30mm cannon for the first time in the conflict. By the time the war was over, more than 31,000 rounds of 30mm. cannon would be expended, on more than 100 missions.
On May 11, another A-10 was reportedly hit. A pro-Serbian website lists the following information, taken from the 'RAF Yearbook.'
'Amongst the many encounters by the 81st FS was one on 11 May, when a pair of OA-10s were performing an airborne FAC mission over eastern Kosovo. Pilots Capt. Chris Short, and his wingman Col. Greg Sanders, entered their designated box area from the south and were notified by an E-3 to search for a possible Serbian helicopter. After 15 minutes of fruitless search, they discovered a possible tank revetment south of Pristina airfield. A Maverick missile was fired at the site, although it was not possible to determine if the tank had been successfully hit. The pilots radioed the position of the tank revetment to another FAC team, and departed the area. The A-10s then flew to another location, where earlier in the day two camouflaged APCs had been reported. Two vehicles were detected, but due to low fuel reserves, the pilots were only able to perform two attacks. Capt. Short rolled his A-10 towards the vehicle and fired a Maverick, scoring a direct hit. The second aircraft aimed for the other vehicle, and also fired a Maverick which missed its target. The two aircraft then climbed to altitude to return to the tanker before continuing their patrol. While in the climb, Capt. Short experienced a 'thump' on the underside of the fuselage behind the seat. As a defensive measure both aircraft ejected self protection flares. Neither Col. Sanders or Capt. Short could find any damage to their aircraft, so the two pilots resumed their flight after refueling from the tanker. The two aircraft completed their mission, which included delivering Mk82 bombs onto a Serb target in Kosovo. The aircraft then returned to Gioia del Colle. It was only after taxing into the de-arming area that personnel noticed damaged to the underside of the A-10. The FM antenna had been torn away, and there was a large dent on the underside and a black scorch mark. A SAM is believed to have exploded nearby, with Capt. Short having a lucky escape'
Reported battle damage to A-10
More Hogs Arrive
The first week of May also saw an increased number of A-10s moved to the theater. On May 17, eighteen A-10s and more than 2,700 reservists were mobilized from three stateside Air Guard units, the 104th Fighter Wing, Barnes Field, Westfield, Mass, the 110th Fighter Wing, Kellogg Airport, Battle Creek, Michigan, and the 124th Wing, Boise Air Terminal in Idaho. Additionally, several A-10s had been previously redeployed from operations over Iraq, where they had been flying patrols over the no-fly zone there. EA-6 jammer aircraft and F-16s were also moved in the same redeployment.
Members of the 81st Fighter Squadron perform safety checks on an A-10 Thunderbolt II
at Aviano Air Base, Italy, after its return from flying air strike missions in support of
NATO Operation Allied Force on March 31, 1999.
The Hog Finds Its Element
As May progressed, a focus of the air campaign was shifting from attacking large fixed sites to killing the many Serbian vehicles and emplacements inside Kosovo, although several high-profile attacks that left civilians dead made much of the headlines. In addition, a new goal of the campaign, to disrupt electricity in Serbia, resulted in about 80 percent of the country losing power. However, due in part to the increase in civilian deaths, specifically the April 14 convoy attack, some Rules of Engagement were changed to allow pilots to go below 15,000 ft., the previous hard deck for missions. FACs could now fly at around 5,000 ft., and strike aircraft, around 8,000 ft., although few A-10s descended to these levels, preferring to stay about 15,000 ft. due to the threat conditions. The A-10s focused their energy on Kosovo, and the difficult task of identifying targets and coordinating strikes against them, often in tremendously difficult tactical situations. From General Clark's book,
"We often saw a picture of a farm house that has tracks going to the farm implement storage shed, and another with a hay stack with a tank clearly hidden underneath, or a treeline with artillery hidden in it. But when you go out from that and see that that's in the middle of a very populated area with a lot of houses around it...... The translation from the high-resolution imagery into quality targetable data that you pass to the cockpit isn't as easy as it looks like it would be."
A threatened ground invasion by NATO troops mobilizing in next-door Macedonia began to draw the public's attention to the emphasis that the alliance was placing on killing Serbian artillery tubes and armored vehicles, which would obviously be used to counter such an invasion. The deployment of MLRS (multi-launch rocket systems) with long-range ATACMS missiles, and AH-64 Apache gunships, led to increased speculation that a ground campaign was forthcoming. However, military leader insisted that the air campaign as it was progressing was serving its purpose of killing tactical targets. From a Pentagon news conference on May 19, spokesman Kevin Bacon addressed the role of the respective weapons:
Q:...on the MLRS system deployed in Albania, and they talked about a lot of artillery on the border, the shelling across the border in Albania, the reports of the Serbs digging in along the borders to stop a suspected ground attack. It all leads to the question of why hasn't MLRS and the ATACMS been used against those kinds of targets? They're very effective against those kind of targets, and they come at relatively low cost to us.
Mr. Bacon: They are very effective, but -- as I've just said in citing figures that we've eliminated a large portion of the Serb artillery -- we believe that our A-10s and other planes have been very effective against these targets as well.
Q: How about the troops positions that have been dug in in that area?
Mr. Bacon: We have been attacking those troop positions as well. They tend to be...
Q:...you have -- you've been inhibited by the weather to do...
Mr. Bacon: We are using the weapon systems we have. They're called A-10s, and they're called F-16s, and there are other planes, and we've been using them with considerable effect.
While the A-10s were being heavily used, media interest in the plane's exploits were somewhat hampered by the lack of "wiz-bang" imagery provided from its sensors. Gun camera footage of the 30mm. cannon proved difficult for the untrained eye to ascertain, and the video on the AGM-65 Maverick wasn't the optimum weapon for making videos that NATO wanted to show to the world's media, since its video feed to the launching aircraft often ended when the missile was launched.
U.S. Air Force ground crew prepare to attach a AGM-65 Maverick
missile to the wing of an A-10 Thunderbolt II at Gioia del Colle, Italy, for
a NATO Operation Allied Force mission on April 12, 1999.
Alongside the lack of information was confusion about the possible role of the Apache helicopters and the role of the A-10 in the possible upcoming ground war, since the two weapons complement each other in the task of killing ground vehicles. However, there clearly was some wrangling about the need to use the Apache force, when the A-10s seemed to be able to do the same mission with less vulnerability. Ironically enough, the charge to not use the Apache was driven by the US Army, for fear of casualties among its helicopter crews. Their deployment, and failure to see combat, weighs heavily in General Clark's book. Regardless, the A-10's role was not going to be diminished by the AH-64s in theater. In fact, it seems likely that if the Apaches were used, A-10s would likely have been used in conjunction with them on strikes. The two aircraft and their crews even flew several training missions together, in preparation for their eventual use, a mission which never came to fruition.
From a briefing on May 19:
Major General Wald: I think all the systems have a little bit different characteristics and capabilities. As you know, Apaches would be very, very good against massed, moving armor-type targets; a C-130, AC-130, in an environment where there are a lot of targets that are moving in mass, type tanks, may not be quite as permissive, let's say, as it would be in other environments. It's great against fixed-type targets. And an A-10, of course, is good against maybe kind of a latitude of all those targets across the board depending on the environment. So they all have their own characteristics. Some of them overlap. When the target's right, the commander will use it against that target.
Q: You say you're hitting them with bombs. How often do you hit them with guns say from an A-10 or from an AC-130?
Major General Wald: The A-10 I understand has been firing a gun periodically. I don't know if it's every mission, but periodically when they have the right target, they'll fire the gun against that type of target, would be one of them, or other targets.
With the continued role of CSAR, CAS, AFAC, and other jobs, the A-10s found themselves in a wide variety of missions and situations that their designers couldn't possibly have foreseen as they were developing the jet. One of the more unusual missions for the A-10 community came on May 20, when an OA-10 was flying as a AFAC for a US Navy F-14 Tomcat equipped with laser guided bombs.
Spotting a "Straight Flush" radar system (often used with the SA-6 SAM system), the A-10 pilot was unable to coordinate an attack by the F-14 in its first pass over. Because the A-10 was armed with Mk-82 500 lb. dumb bombs, the two planes switched roles, and the F-14 used its onboard laser to mark the location of the radar for the A-10, which located the target and then dropped its bombs. Here was a situation when two aircraft, both serving jobs that they weren't truly designed for, performed a mission jointly with success.
Around this same time, the additional A-10s from Massachusetts, Michigan, and Idaho's Air Guard units arrived in the theater and immediately went to work, claiming five tank kills in the first day, as well as ten artillery pieces and several vehicles. A few days later, a pair of A-10s engaged about ten APCs that they discovered, claiming several kills. The effectiveness of the A-10 and its pilots was finally being ratcheted up, and about 40 Warthogs were now an integral part of the air war. In fact, as the deployed AH-64 Apaches experienced publicized difficulty in getting up to speed, it was clear that the existing airpower, and particularly the A-10s, would be carrying the bulk of the ground attack work should a ground invasion occur, which was still considered likely.
In early June, the role of the A-10 was becoming an increasing feature of the daily press briefings about the war, and on June 2, it was revealed that the A-10 was responsible for quite a few of the attacks on Serbian armor and artillery in Kosovo.
One such attack, highlighted in the USAF Trade Publication Air Land Sea Bulletin, describes an A-10 strike commanded by the very same Phil Haun mentioned in the Flight Journal article.
"A two-ship of A-10 Airborne Forward Air Controllers (AFACs) circle over southwest Kosovo, searching for targets. The Serbians have their equipment hidden and finding legitimate military targets has gotten as difficult as finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. As luck would have it, a ragtag infantry unit of Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) volunteers comes in contact with the Serbs. The resulting ground fire, indirect fire support, and movement of Serbian Army mechanized equipment to engage the KLA is sufficient to positively identify the Serbian positions. As flight lead of the two-ship, I begin attacking with AGM-65 Maverick air-to-surface missiles and Mk82 500 lb. bombs. I then bring in additional strikers with cluster bomb units (CBU-87), Mk83, and Mk84 bombs, and inflict significant damage to the Serbian ground units."
It was also made known that a portion of southwest Kosovo was now called "The Hog Pen," where A-10s were doing the bulk of the work of attacked armored targets, both as AFACs and the actual strike aircraft. As a briefer reported: "Since [the Serbs] are congregating there, that's where the targets are, and that's where we'll continue to attack them."
That same week, more and more video of Maverick attacks on armor are shown to the world press. The A-10 was clearly being used in its niche' - killing tanks, a role that it stayed focused on until the end of the war.
On June 9, the Serbs agreed to a cease fire plan that allowed for NATO forces to enter the country in large numbers, and arranged for a Serbian withdrawal from Kosovo within 11 days. A-10s flew some of the last missions of the conflict, attacking Serb artillery on the 9th.. The bombing campaign was suspended the next day, and NATO and Russian troops entered Kosovo independently on June 12. On June 20, the Serbian withdrawal was complete, and Operation Allied Force formally ended.
An Air Force crew chief walks the wing as he does a post-flight check of an
A-10 Thunderbolt II at Aviano Air Base, Italy, after it was flown against targets in the
Federal Republic of Yugoslavia on March 30, 1999, during
NATO Operation Allied Force.
The Cost and the Outcome
Although several aircraft were downed during the course of the war, no NATO lives were lost during Operation Allied Force, thanks no doubt to the fact that the threatened ground offensive never occurred. The alliance, mostly the United States, flew more than 35,000 sorties in support of the operation....about 450 a day....and the A-10s made up a respectable portion of that number. Hogs were credited with killing more tanks and artillery than any other type of aircraft.
The outcome of the war has been somewhat debatable since its end......post war analysis showed widely varying reports of the actual number of armored units killed, with some reports indicating as few as 14 Serbian tanks were destroyed, a fact that's been greatly (and probably correctly) disputed by airpower advocates since. However many tanks were killed, the larger air war took a huge toll on the infrastructure in Kosovo and Yugoslavia. Hundreds of thousands of refugees were forced out of Kosovo, or left voluntarily. Scores of bridges, buildings, facilities, and targets were destroyed, and it was later estimated that the war cost Serbia more than $60 billion dollars. Estimates of deaths on the ground also vary widely, ranging from 2,000-5,000, depending on the source. And although NATO forces still are present in Kosovo, the age-old tensions are just below the surface and the future is entirely uncertain for the region.
One thing is certain, however. The A-10 Thunderbolt II and its aircrew performed well in the conflict, under much less than optimum conditions and performing mission that were never part of the aircraft's design. The war in Kosovo, while perhaps a messy political situation, was a clear affirmation of the A-10's ability to survive and adapt for changing roles.
An A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot gets out of his aircraft at Aviano Air Base, Italy,
after a mission against targets in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
on March 30, 1999, during NATO Operation Allied Force.
From the skies over the Iraqi desert to the rugged mountains of the Balkans and southwest Asia, the A-10 Thunderbolt and its crews have performed a wide range of tasks, using a wide range of tactics, and in a wide range of situations, most of which were never envisioned in the early 1970s when the aircraft was being designed and created. The common thread between these situations and tasks has been the enduring performance of the aircraft and its community. In a time when high-tech sensors are the norm, the A-10 proved in Kosovo that sometimes the most effective sensor is the Mk.1, Mod 0 eyeball. When tactics resort to high-speed drops of smart weapons, experience in every theater in the past decade showed that there's true combat value for 'dumb' weapons controlled by the smartest of smart systems, the human pilot. And in a time when aircraft are made more and more complex, the A-10 is a throwback the days of rugged, hands-on aircraft designed to take and dish out punishment. It's very likely that the Warthog will soldier on for many more years, simply due to the fact that it can do so many tasks so well and that literally, nothing is in service or on the drawing board that can replace it. That is a testament not only to the airframe, but to the pilots who fly the Hog and the ground crew who work on it.
THANKS AND SOURCES
While there is a large amount of information on the A-10's role in Desert Storm, very little has been published about the conflicts since, much less the role of the Warthog in them. The majority of my sources for this article came from web sites that I considered fairly reputable, such as www.defenselink.mil, www.nato.int, and www.af.mil. I surveyed dozens of transcripts of daily press briefings, as well as scores of articles in military publications and on web sites. While I turned up a large number of references to the A-10, piecing them together proved to be a challenge and, in my opinion, provided a very 'wide' piece that in its initial stages was not very 'deep.' Many of these same sites had information that was not clear, not specific enough, or in some cases, was downright inaccurate. Other, non-official sites, like the Federation of American Scientists site (www.fas.org) provided good information on the timelines of many of the operations listed.
Two printed sources also contributed to my understanding of both the larger strategy of the war in Kosovo and the A-10's role in it. Waging Modern War by General Wesley Clark is highly recommended, as is the August 2001 issue of Flight Journal, with its "A-10s Over Kosovo" article.
Speaking of that article, I am immensely grateful to its author, Lt. Col. Phil "Goldie" Haun, USAF for humoring my questions and providing a 'once-over' of this article for obvious errors, of which there were many in draft form. Any remaining are my responsibility, not his. Lt. Col. Haun, an A-10 pilot with combat experience over the Balkans and Iraq, is working on a book about the A-10 over Kosovo, which will be published by Air University Press in the summer of 2002. I appreciate your help, Goldie! I am also grateful to the web staff at Maxwell AFB for their role in linking me up with LTC Haun.
As usual, the SimHQ staff deserve kudos for throwing in their $.02, and in the case of former A-10 pilot Andy Bush, much more than that. Gavin Bennett provided a link to a very interesting article, and a lot of the guys gave their input on how this one was shaping up article. I thank them all. I'd also like to thank SimHQ reader 'Dice-Man,' an A-10 ground crewman, for his help in trying to link me up with some USAF sources on the aircraft.
And to all the men (and some women) who fly and maintain the A-10, including those I see on a regular basis overhead, a sincere thank you for doing what you do.
Copyright 2002 SimHQ.com. Reprinted with permission.
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