The A-10C Thunderbolt II – also known as the Warthog, as well as “The Tankbuster”. Whatever you want to call it, this is one aircraft perfectly designed for its role. AeroResource’s Ben Montgomery was at RAF Lakenheath with the 52ndFW to find out more.

The Aircraft

During the Vietnam War, large numbers of ground attack aircraft were being shot down by both enemy fire and surface to air (SAM) missiles. Attack helicopters, such as the AH-1 Cobra, were unable to take on heavy armour, whilst faster jets (like the F-4 and F-100) were not able to provide effective close air support (CAS) to troops on the ground – this job fell to the A-1 Skyraider, a capable, but aging aircraft.

In 1967, the US asked for tenders for the Attack Experimental Program (A-X), aimed at providing a next-generation CAS airframe. The Program called for the aircraft to be able to loiter for long periods of time, have a very high survivability, be manoeuvrable at low speeds, and have overwhelming firepower, preferably from a cannon. In 1970 these requirements were amended to demand that the aircraft be built around a 30mm cannon.

Out of a total of six aircraft proposals, only Northrop and Fairchild Republic were selected to build prototypes of their designs – designated the YA-9A and YA-10A respectively. After extensive trials, it was announced in 1973 that the YA-10A was to be selected for production, whilst General Electric was selected to build the GAU-8 Avenger cannon that would be integral to the airframe. The first A-10A was delivered to Davis-Monthan AFB in October 1975, with 715 aircraft being delivered over the following seven years.

The A-10A was blooded in the 1991 Gulf War, during which time it was credited with 2000 vehicle, 1200 artillery and 900 tank kills, from over 8000 sorties flown. The A-10 also claimed two air-to-air kills against Iraqi helicopters, shot down with the GAU-8. 9 of every 10 AGM-65 Mavericks fired in the conflict was launched from an A-10 aircraft. The Thunderbolt II has also participated in the Kosovo conflict (Operation Deliberate Force), Afghanistan (Operation Anaconda), Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom), and more recently in Libya, as part of Operation Odyssey Dawn.

The current aircraft in service is the upgraded A-10C. Some A-10As remain, but these are expected to be upgraded to the latest C standard by the end of 2011. The first A-10Cs were upgraded in 2005, with the work taking place with the 309th Maintenance Wing at Hill AFB Utah, with Lockheed Martin operating as the primary contractor. The main aim of the upgrade program was to supply the aircraft with a new digital cockpit and improved avionics programs to decrease pilot workload, and to increase the all-weather attack capability of the aircraft – through the addition of a Digital Stores Management System that allows the carriage of advanced munitions like the JDAM, and modern targeting pods like Sniper XR and LITENING III. The cockpit also includes a new HOTAS system, which vastly reduces time head-down in the cockpit, enabling the pilot to conduct combat operations with much greater effectiveness.

It was with 10 of these upgraded A-10Cs that the 81stFS, 52ndFW deployed to RAF Lakenheath during August 2011.

The Wing

The 81st Fighter Squadron (part of the 52nd Fighter Wing) operates the A-10C Thunderbolt II from Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany. The 81st first stood up at Key Field, Mississippi on January 15th 1942, flying the P-40 Warhawk. At the time the squadron was assigned to the 50th Fighter Group, and moved later in 1942 to Orlando Army Air Field, to become part of the Army Air Force School of Applied Tactics. Here the squadron tested operational procedures and equipment, seeking improved methods of supplying troops in combat, and keeping combat aircraft well maintained.  After moving to Florida in 1943, the unit was recalled to Orlando in 1944 with the rest of the 50thFG squadrons to start training for a deployment to Europe.

Assigned to the 9th Air Force in the UK, the 81st re-equipped with the P-47 Thunderbolt. Between April of 1944, and the cessation of hostilities in Europe, May 1945, the Panthers flew hundreds of missions – from Fighter Escort to Close Air Support and Interdiction missions. The 81st provided valuable support to the D-Day invasion, and operated from many forward airfields in support of the Allied advance. For their part in the European theatre, the 81st were awarded 2 Distinguished Unit Citations for combat, credited with 47 air kills and produced the 50thFG’s only ace (Maj. Robert D. Johnston).

After a period of inactivity and testing following the war, the 81st deployed to Toul Rosieres Air Base in France, during 1956. At this time (during 1958) they also converted to the F-100 Super Sabre. In 1959 they moved to Hahn AB in Germany, and retained their F-100s until 1966, then rearming with F-4C Phantom IIs. After the departure of the Canadian Armed Forces from Germany in 1971, the  Panthers moved to their former base at Zweibrucken for the following two years.

In 1973, the 81stFS moved to their current home at Spangdahlem, and became part of the 52nd Tactical Fighter Wing. Tasked with defence suppression, the wing received 24 F-4G Wild Weasel aircraft to replace their F-4Cs. A decade later, the F-4E was introduced to the squadron alongside the F-4G, and the 52ndTFW became NATO’s only dedicated defence suppression wing.

At the end of the decade, the F-4E was phased out of service with the wing, and replaced by the F-16C Fighting Falcon (still flown by the 52ndFW today with the 480thFS) – this was unique in that at the time, the 52ndTFW had become the only unit in the USAF to deploy two aircraft in the same combat element. The F-16 left briefly in 1990, leaving the 81st with only the F-4G (with which they flew over 12,000 combat sorties over Iraq) – before that aircraft was finally retired, and left Spangdahlem in 1994. At the same time, the 81st reequipped with the A-10A. The 81st has been equipped with the A-10 since then, playing extensive parts in many conflicts (Operation Allied Force, Operation Southern Watch, Operation Enduring Freedom). For Operation Enduring Freedom, the squadron deployed to Bagram AB on four separate occasions. On their latest deployment, to Kandahar AB, they fielded the A-10C for the first time, and racked up an impressive 9500 hours on 2100 sorties – firing over 70,000 30mm rounds, 159 precision weapons and 141 rockets.

The Deployment

On 1st August 2011, ten A-10C Thunderbolt IIs from 81stFS, 52ndFW arrived at RAF Lakenheath from Spangdahlem AB Germany. The aircraft were 81-0956, 81-0976, 81-0962, 81-0945, 81-0985, 81-0991, 81-0992, 82-0654, 82-0656 and 82-0649. Supporting these aircraft were over 200 personnel from the 52ndFW, including 25+ pilots from the 81st.

The primary reason for the deployment was to undertake important Close Air Support training, in preparation for deployment. The reason for operating from Lakenheath, as opposed to staying in Spangdahlem was twofold – firstly it allowed the pilots to fly in an unfamiliar environment (which will of course happen on operations), and secondly due to the live fire and low flying opportunities that the UK offers.

Combat Air Support missions flown whilst on deployment were widely varied – the most common customer for the A-10 was the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (or JTAC) – a military service member on the ground who can direct air power from a forward position. Operating with both US JTACs, and British FACs (Forward Air Controllers) provided a range of experience – and being in the UK allowed the crew and ground troops to debrief face to face, much more useful than via video/telephone.

The A-10 crews also operated jointly with the F-15E Strike Eagles of Lakenheath’s resident 492ndFS and 494thFS as integrated CAS units. The aircraft typically worked in pairs (2x A-10C, 2x F-15E), providing deconfliction for each other, as well as top and low cover. A C-12D, serial 81-23545, was also involved in the work, although little is known about this aircraft and it’s ISTAR style equipment set-up.

The option to conduct live firing training during the deployment was highly utilised, with Holbeach, Donna Nook and Aberporth ranges all receiving visits from the Thunderbolts. Much time was spent practising with the GAU-8 Avenger cannon, the A-10s main weapon. In the words of Lt.Col John Briner, the 81stFS commander: “[The GAU-8] is by far the most useful weapon we have for supporting troops on the ground – it is fantastically versatile and extremely accurate”. The GAU-8 is so accurate that 80% of rounds fired from a slant of 4000ft will hit within a 20m circle of the target. It is, according to Lt.Col Briner, an awesome experience from the cockpit – with the jet vibrating, and a faint smell of cordite in the cockpit, as well as a satisfying sparkle or rounds impacting on the metal targets. Live firing of AGM-65 Mavericks was also possible over the Aberporth range, as well as bombing practise, using the 25 pound BDU-33 dummy unit (which simulates a Mk.82 in low drag set-up).

Another unique feature the UK offers is the Low Fly Structure – not readily available in Germany. Due to the A-10s role of anti-armour and CAS, low flying is a key skill for the pilots. Whilst they were primarily in the UK for weapons training, there was some opportunity to fly low in LFA7 (commonly known as the Mach Loop Area), where the A-10 is cleared down to 300ft.

During the first half of their visit, the A-10s also participated in Exercise Early Resolve – a joint air exercise involving both US and UK assets (A-10s, F-15s, Hawks, Shadow R.1, C-12D and Tucanos were all noted participating). The exercise allowed the A-10s to practise all of the skills mentioned above, during both day and night missions. As always with exercises and aircraft like these, the FighterControl forums were busy with people monitoring the activity – indeed, the A-10s sparked a 40+ page thread centered around their missions, which can be found by clicking here, a very interesting read.

After only 3 short weeks, the A-10s were already heading home, having flown many sorties to Holbeach, Donna Nook and Aberporth, flown through LFA7, shot approaches at RAF Waddington – all in all a pretty active deployment. For many people, this was their first chance to see the A-10 in the UK since their last deployment in 2007 (excluding brief visits to airshows such as RIAT), and we all hope the 81stFS will be visiting again soon!

AeroResource would like to offer their most sincere thanks to 1st Lt. Ashley Skillman 48thFW, Lt.Col John Briner 52ndFW and to all the men and women of the 52ndFW for their fantastic cooperation in the production of this article.