Technology Upgrades Give Edge to Ground-Attack Pilots
DAVIS-MONTHAN AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. — When he flew combat missions in Afghanistan in 2004, Maj. Neal Kistler lugged two sacks of maps into the cockpit of his A-10 and used a red grease pencil to notate the locations of enemy artillery while in flight. Before he could drop a bomb, he had to flip a number of switches, triple check their settings and then reset them after deployment to correct the bomb’s trajectory.
Those analog ways of doing business are to be expected aboard a warplane that was designed in the 1970s as the Air Force’s sole ground-attack jet. Only in the past two years have A-10 pilots moved into the digital age with the Thunderbolt II, which has become the weapon of choice for ground units pinned down by enemy fire.
Along with a wing replacement program, the interior of the aircraft is being updated with new digital cockpit displays, improved flight controller sticks and throttles and reconfigured control panels. Advanced targeting pods will give pilots better tools to conduct surveillance and accurately deploy weapons. Finally, the airplanes will be able to accept targeting information digitally and send text messages to the ground.
“The integration of these systems is going to change the way we fight — dramatically improve the way we fight,” says Col. Kent Laughbaum, commander of the 355th Fighter Wing, which has been flying the airplane since the Cold War. “The airframe is an old airframe, but with these advancements, we anticipate flying for another 20 years.”
The upgrades are arriving at an opportune time. The A-10s have been flying in support of troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq since the beginning of the conflicts, when the Air Force conducted interdiction operations and pre-planned most of its targeting missions, officials say.
But the nature of the wars has changed. Insurgents have dispersed into populated areas to make it more difficult for U.S. forces to find them. Such tactics require troops and warplanes to conduct more intelligence operations to track them down. Once the enemy is found, commanders must determine how best to handle the situation without harming non-combatants.
Pilots insist that their primary mission of close-air support has not changed despite the battlefield transitioning to the urban environment where insurgents exploit the civilian population to shield their activities.
The basics of the mission — knowing the exact locations of friendly forces, pinpointing the enemy and coordinating with an airman on the ground to support troops with weapons or non-kinetics — are still the same.
“What has changed is our ability to do those basics precisely,” says Laughbaum, who began his career in the A-10A, but spent the bulk of his flying years in the F-15E. Still, he is a fierce supporter of the aircraft, fondly called the “Warthog” by its operators and by ground forces whose lives it has saved. “I have story after story upon story of A-10s coming at the point of contact and tipping the balance to victory,” he says.
The technology upgrades in the A-10C will improve the air-ground coordination necessary for conducting close-air support missions, the wing’s pilots say. More crucially, they will help the pilots succeed in the urban environment, where they worry about non-combatants whom they cannot see inside buildings.
“There could be a family in there sleeping. You just don’t know. Information relay is just crucial,” says Capt. Matthew Hannon, weapons officer for the 354th Fighter Squadron.
Many times, A-10 pilots who are called to support ground troops scramble to their jets without knowing the details of their mission.
“Until you start talking to the guy that’s actually there, and probably getting shot at, you won’t know the full extent of the situation,” says Kistler, an instructor pilot in the 357th Fighter Squadron. Even then, pilots still lack full knowledge of the situation because the airman on the ground with whom they communicate is often taking cover. “That’s when you show up and you have to put together the rest of the puzzle,” he says.
In an effort to expedite such information to the pilots, the Air Force is providing digital upgrades to many of its ground-based communications technologies. The A-10C improvements will allow pilots to receive that information digitally from airmen, known as joint terminal attack controllers, embedded with ground forces.
Intelligence is now a driver of operations, says Col. Gary Crowder, commander of the 609th Air and Space Operations Center. As deputy director of the combined air and space operations center in Southwest Asia, he is responsible for the planning and integration of air and space operations across Central Command.
In previous conflicts, pilots would be briefed prior to flying. But now they also are taking in updated intelligence en route to their missions, and that information could change their tasking on the fly. “It’s much more information-intensive,” he says in a phone interview. “It is much more reliant on current, near real-time intelligence being fed to the ground commanders and the pilots to enable them to be able to do their jobs more effectively.”
By nature, close-air support missions rely on intelligence from the battlefield, he says. That’s why it’s imperative for the pilot to have communications with the joint terminal attack controller on the ground. But the process has been a voice-intensive one. The JTAC reads a string of coordinates to the pilot via radio. The pilot writes it down on his kneeboard, punches it into the cockpit, and then reads it back to the JTAC for verification.
The situational awareness data link, or SADL, being installed in the A-10s, will speed up that process considerably by digitally connecting pilots to a network of combat communications systems. The JTAC on the ground can relay targeting information — a “nine-line” — to the pilot long before he arrives at the point of contact, says Crowder.
Having coordinates sent via text message means pilots no longer have to worry about poor line-of-sight communications with ground forces in combat.
“It’s more efficient, with less room for interpretation errors,” says Hannon, the 354th squadron tactician. Last year, the unit flew more than 1,100 close-air support missions in Afghanistan during its six-month deployment with A-10A aircraft. The squadron is in the process of converting to the A-10C model.
Inside the A-10C, two multifunctional color displays can project moving maps overlaid with critical battlefield information, such as locations of friendly forces, enemy and anti-aircraft artillery. Operators also can choose to view imagery from their targeting pod and missiles, or display weapons stations or navigational information.
With a single switch change, pilots in the A-10C can go from dropping a bomb to shooting a rocket on a completely different weapons station without taking their hands off the throttle or stick. “It’s much quicker and it’s much more reliable,” says Kistler.
In the A-model, the process is a tedious ballet of pressing multiple buttons in the cockpit to select and deselect weapons stations, which can be prone to errors.
For example, to aim the laser in the A-model, pilots have to hit the weapons release button. If the pilot previously had activated a wrong switch that called up a station holding a bomb or rocket, then a weapon might be released inadvertently, says Hannon.
Such ease in calling up weapons, targeting and deploying them in the A-10C means pilots will take less time to set up for multiple attacks in combat.
“What makes the A-10C even more lethal than the A-10A is the SADL integration and the targeting pod. That is really what helps shorten the kill chain,” says Hannon.
Having the C-model capabilities in combat would have been beneficial in many cases, the pilots say. When deployed to Afghanistan in 2004, Kistler was escorting a Marine convoy at night when it took fire from a hillside. The JTAC pointed an infrared laser at the location where the troops wanted a laser-guided bomb dropped. Kistler maneuvered his targeting pod to the spot and marked it, and then his wingman dropped the bomb. The whole set-up process took 10 to 15 minutes. “We could have cut that in half with the C-model,” he says. Instead of doing a buddy-lasing attack, he would have done a self-laser attack.
With the cockpit improvements come a number of associated problems. So much information flowing into the cockpit means that pilots will have to remember to keep their eyes up as much as they can. “The A-10C technology does not change the fact that we will still strive for eyes on the target,” says Hannon.
Because the tactical awareness display does not show incoming threats, pilots must keep watch for potential artillery, missiles and other surface-to-air weapons. A-10s typically fly in a two-ship formation. The flight lead coordinates with the airmen on the ground while the wingman flies the cover role, looking for those incoming threats.
The increasing amount of information in the cockpit has other implications for the A-10s.
“That’s going to be one of our biggest challenges — how do we decipher all that information and how do we relay that among the flight, so that everyone has that same amount of information,” says Hannon. The A-10 is in the process of integrating with other digitally-equipped aircraft, such as the F-15E, the F-16 and the F-18. Because not all the aircraft communicate on the same data link system, the Air Force is fielding a ground-based computer system called the Gateway to act as a translator to patch communications through to all the systems.
In Iraq, the Air Force is about to complete the installation of the Gateway. The same capability in the fall will be fielded to the ground headquarters in Afghanistan, says Crowder. That will coincide with an active duty A-10C squadron’s deployment into that theater, he adds.
For the JTACs on the ground, the Air Force is still on track to deploy the latest handheld version of the remotely operated video enhanced receiver, or ROVER, which allows them to view what the pilots are seeing in their targeting pods in real-time.
“The ability to share a video image dramatically improves our ability to do close-air support in general, and urban close-air support in particular,” says Crowder. The urban environment is one of the most complex terrains that pilots must contend with in close-air support missions. Buildings look the same to a pilot flying at 15,000 feet. But with a video link, the pilot, the weapons officer and the JTAC can all share the same information and dramatically improve the speed and accuracy with which they call strikes on a particular target, he adds.
There have been cases in the wars where JTACs utilized targeting pod video feeds to help guide pilots to the enemy’s exact location. In one particular instance, the JTAC directed a pilot to move his targeting pod one floor up a building and two windows to the right. “They put a Hellfire missile right through the window where he wanted to put it through, to where the sniper was,” says Crowder.
But pilots, like Hannon, who have recently flown in combat say they are finding that there aren’t always JTACs on the ground with the troops they are supporting. In such cases, they are often communicating with an airman who is sitting at the ground tactical operations center watching video feeds coming in from drones. With the A-10C, the pilots can feed to that airman the video from their targeting pods, so that both are looking at the same picture and targets.
But, he points out, there is a shortage of targeting pods for the squadrons to train at home stations. The three A-10 squadrons at Davis-Monthan share four LITENING targeting pods.
“I can’t maintain the proficiency and train my guys for the next fight with four targeting pods,” he says.
There was only one targeting pod per flight during Kistler’s deployment in 2004, so the flight lead would have the targeting pod and the wingman would not. But in 2005, every plane had a pod, says Hannon, who was deployed then. The C-model can accommodate both LITENING and Sniper pods and the squadron could get hand-me-down LITENING pods from those that transition to the Sniper pod.
The A-10C upgrades also add an element of stealth to the airplane. Because it can drop weapons from farther distances with the GPS-guided weapons capability, pilots say the reduced noise signature means enemies might not even know they’ve been targeted until they’re hit.
Meanwhile, the Air Force continues to field more precise weapons. In the fall, it will deploy a new kind of bomb that doesn’t discharge shrapnel. The focused lethality munition, or FLM, is filled with a dense inert metal explosive. Its shell is made of a composite material that disappears when the bomb explodes. As a result, blasts are confined to 30 meters. The weapon will be fielded initially on the small diameter bomb, the GDU-39.
“This technology will allow us to use a weapon with a far more precise effect so that we can create a far more localized impact,” says Crowder.
The Air Force also is working to have the same technology incorporated into the standard 500-pound bomb. “That will allow us to get this technology into the field much more quickly.”
The small diameter bomb, by contrast, is carried only on the F-15E.
“If we are forced to deploy weapons in the close-air support environment, we can do so more accurately and with more focused effects than we might have been able to just a few years ago,” says Crowder.
While the A-10 can carry precision munitions, pilots still rely heavily upon its Gatling gun. The GAU-8/A Avenger cannon fires 30 mm rounds at a rate of 60 rounds per second. To destroy a typical target requires between a half-second to two-second burst, regardless of the target’s size, says Laughbaum. “This is the most powerful gun ever put on an airplane,” he says.
In combat, a pilot may hit 10 different targets during a single sortie.
Crowder says the A-10 is the most accurate strafe platform in the Air Force inventory. Pilots say that the A-10C upgrades will make the gun even more precise.
During its deployment to Afghanistan in 2007, the 354th Fighter Squadron dropped more tonnage than any other squadron since Vietnam, says Hannon. It fired one million 30 mm rounds, says Crowder.
Despite those high numbers, the reality is that close-air support is significantly less kinetic, he adds. In 90 percent of the sorties, no weapons are dropped. Instead, A-10s are flying one of two missions: armed overwatch and armed reconnaissance.
In armed overwatch missions, warplanes fly above ground troops feeding them video and other data, and are ready to conduct traditional kinetic close-air support should the need arise. In armed reconnaissance missions, they scan the road ahead of a routine convoy to look for roadside bombs and other threats before ground forces move out.
“It’s a more dynamic process than what people traditionally think of as CAS. There’s a lot more intelligence sharing, passing video back and forth,” says Crowder.
To teach pilots how to employ all the new technologies, the wing, which trains the Air Force’s A-10 operators, has designed a course to help A-model aviators transition to the C-model.
They typically convert in four rides, says Kistler, who learned to fly the A-10A seven years ago and converted to the C-model a year ago. But most operators need another year or two to master the new technology. The plane itself is easy to fly, he says. “The toughest part is weapons employment.”
Pilots can practice using the targeting pod in the cockpit simulator on base. For live training, they fly out to tactical ranges located 100 miles west of Tucson where they can practice dropping bombs, shooting the cannon and firing rockets. There are often JTACs on the ground learning to call in close-air support.
The A-10 pilots consider themselves the worldwide experts in the close-air support mission.
“Our goal in this community, in particular, is to not only do the mission well today, but to look forward into the future, to innovate, to take these weapons systems that are being added to the A-10 and find the best possible ways to use them,” says Laughbaum.
Many of those innovations will come from the young pilots who are learning to fly the aircraft, he adds.
“They’re the ones who are going to figure out and determine the full potential of this new weapons system. They will discover ways of employing this new weapons system that we haven’t even thought of yet,” he says.
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