Northeast Afghanistan, 2009. As my wingman and I check in to RIP (remove in-place) Dude 51, a flight of Boeing F-15E Strike Eagles, we hear nothing but squelch breaks on the radio–the type of squelch breaks you hear when others are talking on a secure frequency and your KY-58 has the incorrect fill.
We push our radios to Dude’s interflight frequency and my fears are confirmed that we don’t have the proper secure fill. They sound relieved that we are there due to the hectic nature of the ground situation, give us a brief SITREP, pass words to the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) about our radio issue, then check-out and head back to Bagram.
We are holding east-west, north of the valley, looking south towards the fight. About every 30-45” we see artillery rounds impacting the hillsides surrounding the valley, being shot from Combat Outpost (COP) Michigan, about 6 miles to the west.
I attempt multiple low passes over a friendly vehicle convoy under coordinated attack from three different locations, hoping to visually contact them since voice thus far had been a no-go. I am finally able to establish weak comms with the JTAC on an FM team frequency, now operating in the plain, without a secure connection.
He passes me an updated SITREP and a CAS 9-line for enemy troops in the hills to the east of their position. Additionally, he lets me know there is an Army OH-58D Kiowa helicopter operating in the area. His convoy has just taken an RPG to the turret of a Humvee, knocking the gunner out of the vehicle, rendering him unconscious.
As I work the details of the 9-line, and positive identification (PID) of the enemy troops with the JTAC, my wingman climbs to get line-of-sight with COP Michigan to get the artillery turned off. The JTAC had attempted multiple times to stop the arty due to its current inaccuracies.
The major communication problem the JTAC and I are running into is the fact their FM team frequency also happens to be a Pakistani music station. We are so close to the border that every time I climb higher than two thousand feet above ground level, gaining line-of-sight to Pakistan, I also hear their greatest hits in my helmet.
With the arty turned off, 9-line complete, PID met, and deconfliction established with the Kiowa, I direct my wingman to roll-in and employ two Mk-82 airburst bombs on my laser spot, to the east of the convoy, from where they had taken the RPG shot.
With fire from the east calmed, as well as from the small village to the convoy’s south, I send my wingman to the tanker so we can start yo-yo refueling operations. The convoy is moving out of the valley at a snails pace. The Kiowa is keeping an eye on the west wall of the valley as I scan the road in front of the convoy.
My wingman returns about 20 minutes later, and just as I am about to head to the tanker, fire erupts from the western side of the valley, at both the convoy and the Kiowa. The Kiowa return fire with guns and rockets, but with little effect. The right seat Kiowa pilot goes so far as to open his door and shoot his M-4 when they run out of rounds.
With one rocket left, and the JTAC and I finishing coordination for a Type III CAS control, they mark the exact location of the fire. For the next 10 minutes, my wingman and I unloaded over 1,300 rounds of 30-millimeter and seven white phosphorus rockets, ultimately killing multiple enemy combatants.
The vehicle convoy safely exits the valley and returns to their FOB with only a few wounded-in-action, all non-life threatening. I elect to not get gas that day due to the urgent nature of the situation. We return to Bagram soon after the convoy exits the valley, and I end up flying a 3.3-hour un-refueled combat sortie.
Not a bad day in the life of a Hawg Driver.
I highlight my experience above to show the relevance of the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II in this visual, high-intensity fight that required a lot of ordnance–specifically a big gun with big bullets, and hours upon hours of on-station time. Whether it’s fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan or slaying ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the A-10 is the premier CAS aircraft we have…period.
When we hear things like “the A-10 only executes 20% of CAS missions in Operation Enduring Freedom,” we never hear that a MISREP analysis conducted from 2006-2013 revealed the A-10 executed 42% of all attacks (an attack being defined as ordnance impacting targets in support of ground forces).
An unfortunate aspect of categorizing aircraft is that we talk in “roles” instead of missions. The A-10 is one of the best multi-mission aircraft we have. Executing CAS, FAC(A), CSAR, SCAR, and AI, much like the F-22 executes OCA, DCA, and AI. We absolutely must think in terms of supporting and saving ground troops. We are customer support providers to the 18-year-old troops on the ground.
When we have a purely air-to-ground dedicated platform, we are able to build and foster relationships with these ground troops that I have personally taken into combat. My fear as a tactical aviator who supports people is that as we transition to an all multi-role Air Force, we’ll only see smatterings of CAS, FAC(A), and CSAR on a RAP tasking memo because we have too many other missions to support, therefore providing worse support to ground forces, and we’ll be doing it with less capable weapons than described in my troops-in-contact scenario you just read.
A look at the Letter of X’s from my last A-10 unit showed 82% of the pilots as qualified FACs, with all but two of them having NOT attended the Joint Firepower Course-Airborne. This course is a week-long FAC(A) program designed to prepare a pilot for the upgrade. It is also very heavy on Army/Marine operations and how the FAC(A) will integrate with the JTAC, FSO, and Ground Commander to ensure objectives are met.
Additionally, an A-10 Initial Qualification student has hours of class about Joint Publications and Army/Marine integration. For those who attend USAF Weapons School like I did, the A-10 program has additional classes on Army/Marine operations, and how the A-10 Weapons Officer, working with the Ground Liaison Officer, can train for wartime operations.
The A-10 and its pilots are extremely integrated in ground operations. This high level of integration cannot be achieved easily or quickly, and requires a dedicated platform and community to execute. Tying the above paragraph into the troops-in-contact (TIC) strives to highlight knowing and understanding the Army, their operations, and that of the JTAC.
Searching through communication frequencies, pulling and pushing data to the JTAC to get a Type III control because I was tally/visual, all of these tasks are muscle memory to the A-10 pilot. Couple pilot capabilities with 1150 rounds of 30mm, and the ability to do it all over again under the weather (I have personally shot an ILS approach to Jalalabad, then once VMC, followed the river northeast to the Pech River Valley where I turned west and then checked-in with the JTAC, using F-16 or F-15Es as a radio relay when overhead) really separates the Attack community from others.
Close Air Support, as well as CSAR and Interdiction missions (ATO or DOC statement assigned), are the only missions that fighter/attack aircraft execute in the Air Force that are governed by a Joint Publication; JP 3-09.3 for CAS, JP 3-50 for Personnel Recovery, and JP 3-03 for Interdiction. All missions that the A-10 does, two of which have A-10 pilots as the unquestioned expert and community leader.
In the words of General Odierno (USA Chief of Staff), at a recent Senate Armed Services Committed hearing, “Soldiers like the A-10. They can see it, they can hear it, they have confidence in it. And that’s the one thing that we have to account for as we move forward.”
A Hawg Driver