October 13, 2010:
In Afghanistan, the most requested ground support aircraft is the U.S. A-10. It's been that way since 2002, and there was similar A-10 affection in Iraq. Troops from all nations quickly come to appreciate the unique abilities of this 1970s era aircraft, that the U.S. Air Force has several times tried to retire. Now, over 300 remaining A-10s are being upgraded, so that they can fly until 2028. This includes new electronics as well as structural and engine refurbishment.
A-10s are worked hard. An A-10 squadron has a dozen aircraft and 18 pilots. Pilots often average about a hundred hours a month in the air. That's about twenty sorties, as each sortie averages about five hours. The aircraft range all over southern Afghanistan, waiting for troops below to call for some air support. The A-10, nicknamed "Warthog", or just "hog", could always fly low and slow, and was designed, and armored, to survive lots of ground fire. The troops trust the A-10 more than the F-16, or any other aircraft used for ground support.
For the last three years, pilots have been flying a new version of the A-10, the A-10C. The air force has been upgrading A-10s to the "C" model for most of the past decade. The new goodies for the A-10C equip the pilot with the same targeting and fire control gadgets the latest fighters have. The new A-10C cockpit has all the spiffy color displays and easy to use controls. Because it is a single-seat aircraft, that flies close to the ground (something that requires a lot more concentration), all the automation in the cockpit allows the pilot to do a lot more, with less stress, exertion and danger.
The basic A-10 is a three decade old design, so the new additions are quite spectacular in comparison. New commo gear is installed as well, allowing A-10 pilots to share pix and vids with troops on the ground. The A-10 pilot also has access to the Blue Force Tracker system, so that the nearest friendly ground forces show up on the HUD (Head Up Display) when coming in low to use the 30mm cannon. The A-10 can now use smart bombs, making it a do-it-all aircraft for troops support. The air force is also upgrading the engine and structural components on the A-10s, which may cost another $10 million per aircraft. But this extends the service life of each aircraft to 16,000 hours.
The newly equipped A-10s are so abundant now, that only A-10Cs are flying in combat zones. But it will take several more years to upgrade all 350 A-10s in service. Beyond that, the air force will continue to upgrade the engines and structures of the 1970s era aircraft. All the upgrades will cost about $13 million per aircraft.
The A-10 is a 23 ton, twin engine, single seat aircraft whose primary weapon is a multi-barrel 30mm cannon originally designed to fire armored piercing shells at Russian tanks. These days, the 1,174 30mm rounds are mostly high explosive. The 30mm cannon fires 363 gram (12.7 ounce) rounds at the rate of about 65 a second. The cannon is usually fired in one or two second bursts. In addition, the A-10 can carry seven tons of bombs and missiles. These days, the A-10 goes out with smart bombs (GPS and laser guided) and Maverick missiles. It can also carry a targeting pod, enabling the pilot to use high magnification day/night cameras to scour the area for enemy activity. Cruising speed is 560 kilometers an hour, and the A-10 can slow down to about 230 kilometers an hour. In Afghanistan, two drop tanks are usually carried, to give the aircraft maximum time over the battlefield.