A-10s surge for offensive

AUg. 25, 2006 -- BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan -- 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 ridge line 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 JTAC 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 Gatling 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 Lt. Col. Keith McBride, 81st Exped-itionary Fighter Squadron commander, deployed from Spangdahlem Air Base.
Colonel 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 Col. Tony Johnson, the 455th Expeditionary Operations Group commander and an A-10 pilot deployed from Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo.
Up-tempo operations
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 ground U.S. and Coalition forces 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," said Brig. Gen. Christopher Miller, 455th Air Expeditionary Wing commander. One of his 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 re-build into a society where terrorists can't flourish."
Preservation of infrastructure and limiting damage on the ground are crucial, since the country of Afghanistan is not the enemy, Colonel Johnson said.
"We're also re-building a country," he said. "I don't know what other aircraft would be better at this than the A-10."
Well suited to Afghanistan
The A-10 was originally designed around its 30-mm Gatling gun, designated the GAU-8. The gun is more of a small artillery piece, firing large 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 is not enough, 11 stations underneath the aircraft hold up to16,000 pounds of bombs, missiles and rockets.
"Our weapons effects make a decisive impact on the battle," Colonel McBride said. "Ground forces rely on our rapid response and our pin-point accuracy."
But it is not just the A-10's firepower that makes it an excellent choice for supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. The aircraft 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 is 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 Combined Air Operations Center in Southwest Asia 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 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."
Maintenance magic
To keep the A-10 in fighting form and to 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, deployed from Spangdahlem AB, 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," Major 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 are not just keeping aircraft flying, maintainers also load the weapons A-10s need to support ground troops.
That is where Master Sgt. Dennis Peterson, from Spangdahlem AB, 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."
Since arriving here in May, the load teams at Bagram keep a running score of the bombs, rockets and bullets used by A-10s 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," Colonel 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.
"The A-10 is employing lethal firepower when it's needed most by troops on the ground," said Capt. Rick Mitchell, deployed from Whiteman AFB. "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."