CAS, 'the Hog,' and the reservist

  • Published
  • By Col. James Mackey
  • 442nd Fighter Wing vice commander
To prepare for our recent ORI, I wrote an article describing the 442nd Fighter Wing and the A-10 Warthog's purpose.

I described a sign located on the life support door at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan. The sign states, "It's all about the 19-year-old with a rifle - everything else is just support." I love that statement since it reminds pilots and weapon system officers stepping to their aircraft why they are about to launch into the mountainous terrain, throw their jet and body at the ground and deliver weapons upon the enemy.

As close-air-support A-10 pilots, we support the ground battle - the infantry grunt - in direct contact with the enemy. Close air support, along with reconnaissance and electronic warfare, has become the combative component of the Air Force's primary responsibilities in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A few years ago, our fighter force bragged about air-to-air engagements and our bomber force concentrated on long-range strike. Although those elements of air power are challenging and important, today, due to insurgent activity in Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom, CAS has become a high priority for every weapons platform.

What is CAS and how effective is the A-10 at performing the CAS mission?

Simply put, close air support is engaging the enemy in close proximity to friendly troops. CAS is a very fluid mission requiring the air crew to understand the ground order of battle that includes friendly locations, enemy positions, artillery de-confliction, threat information and the commanders' intentions.

We have publications to help us prepare for a CAS mission. Joint Publication 3.09.3 describes the basic elements of CAS and 3-1 describes the tactics, techniques and procedures for a Hog driver to accomplish their objectives. CAS can be performed with various aircraft, but to be an effective CAS platform, the air crew must understand the ground situation and how to best support the ground commander's intent.

Why is the A-10 the best CAS platform in the United States Air Force?

The A-10 was designed around a huge, 30-mm GAU-8 Gatling gun with CAS as the aircraft's primary mission. The gun can shoot up to 70 rounds of 30 mm (armor-piercing incendiary or high-explosive incendiary) bullets per second. Additionally, we can deliver a variety of munitions to include: joint-direct attack munitions, laser-guided bombs, cluster munitions, general-purpose bombs, AGM-65 Maverick air-to-surface missiles, AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, white-phosphorus marking or high-explosive rockets, and we use the LITENING II or SNIPER targeting pod to find and clarify targets.

However, the main reason the A-10 is the best CAS platform is the men and women who fly them and the mindset they bring to the fight. Unlike other aircraft, the A-10's primary mission is close air support. We live and breathe the mission and understand the ground order of battle. Most of our pilots are graduates of the USAF's Air to Ground Operations School and many of us have completed a tour as a battalion air liaison officer advising Army battalion commanders of air capabilities during ground maneuvers. This experience helps a Hog driver better engage the enemy when confronted with a fluid battlefield. This CAS mindset allows us to do real CAS. We don't just drop on the joint terminal attack controllers' coordinates; instead we know the ground commanders intent, communicate our capabilities, and develop an effective plan to engage the enemy. This mindset and preparation allows the Hog to engage the enemy closer to friendly people and shape the battlefield better than other platforms.

During the summer of 2006, I was involved with a CAS engagement that demonstrated the importance of understanding the battlefield.

I was flying the second aircraft in a two-ship of Hogs and tasked to support a "troops in contact" situation. When we arrived on station, we discovered a friendly platoon engaging the enemy. The platoon had been ambushed by the Taliban from two separate ridge lines, had two immoble and disabled vehicles, and was in a fierce fire fight with the enemy.

Additionally, the platoon did not have a qualified air controller to call in an air strike. Lt. Col. Anthony Roe, 303rd Fighter Squadron, was leading the flight and used his CAS expertise to identify the friendly location, the enemy location and direct the flight to engage the adversary. We eventually strafed "danger close" and within 50 meters of the friendly location. The effective fire deterred any further enemy fire and allowed the friendly platoon to be towed clear of the ambush site. The end result was a successful engagement, and ultimately we saved a platoon that morning but without Colonel Roe's CAS mentality and ability to determine the ground situation, the outcome could have been a lot worse.

Performing CAS is the 442nd FW's primary mission. It takes everyone in the wing to support that mission and support the ground combat element. Our wing consists of our technicians (full timers) and our part timers or traditional reservists. TRs generally spend two days a month plus an additional 15 days a year during their annual tour performing their military commitment. The 442nd FW's pilots spend eight to 10 days a month flying to fulfill their currency requirements.

All of us (pilots, maintainers, combat support and medical troops) meet the same Air Force requirements as our active-duty counterparts. We have the same ancillary training, same physical fitness test requirements, and same job performance criteria as the active duty. Considering the limited days of availability, that is a lot responsibility to put in one sack.

Our wing also pulls a heavy load in the Global War on Terror. Our aviation package deployed and established bar- base operations at Bagram, Afghanistan, in 2002, along with two more bare-base operations in Tallil and Kirkuk, Iraq in 2003. We again returned to Bagram in 2006 and 2008.

Our combat support units pull a heavy load too. In addition to numerous individual voluntary deployments, our civil engineer squadron deployed to Kirkuk in 2007 and 2008, and our Security Forces have deployed numerous times since 9/11.

Nearly all of our deployments are on a voluntary basis. To keep the number of involuntary deployments to a Congressionally-mandated minimum number of personnel, Reservists volunteer for deployments. This takes a huge commitment from a reservist's family and civilian employer.

We, as reservists, have three pillars. Just like the active duty we have our family and military job. But unlike the active duty, we have a civilian employer we need to keep satisfied as well. A reservist constantly juggles all three pillars to keep each satisfied. If one pillar falls, the whole deck of cards will tumble; so a reservist constantly manages all three to keep them all happy. It's a tough struggle but when we save a ground-maneuver unit in Afghanistan, it makes the struggle well worth the effort.