By Capt. Kristen D. Duncan, 451st Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
/ Published January 05, 2010
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (AFNS) -- More than 10,000 flight hours and 2,500 sorties marked the closing stages of a six-month tour for the members of the 354th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron here New Year's Day.
The A-10 Thunderbolt II squadron Airmen were able to save countless ground forces' lives because of faster reaction times as the unit is based in southern Afghanistan.
"Because a lot of the focus is Regional Command-South -- towns in Helmand -- it gives you an airplane that is designed for close-air support, it does CAS better than any other airplane in the world, and it puts us much closer to the fight than if we were at Bagram (Airfield in Afghanistan)," said Lt. Col. Michael Millen, the 354th EFS commander. "We are much closer to our work, and it allows us more time actually doing the job than traveling to and from it. "Even if we're not able to employ or provide the fire power to engage the enemy, they will stop shooting while we're there. It doesn't sound like much, but if our presence enables guys to take off their body armor and eat lunch, then that's what we do."
The squadron from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., which deployed in July, flew sorties while spearheading new data link communications along the way because of a combined effort between the Army and Air Force.
Seeing the bigger picture
The situational awareness data link feeds information into the tactical awareness display in the cockpit and has the capability of geospatially finding ground units that have an Enhanced Position Location Reporting System, or a Global Positioning System-based non-terrestrial tracking system, Blue Force Trackers. Prior to the integration of SADL, an Internet-like network of land, air and sea tracking systems, pilots annotated friendly and enemy locations in grease pencil on paper maps.
All of the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division vehicles and even a lot of their personnel can be seen on the pilots' situational awareness displays in the cockpit. But until recently, pilots could only view units on the ground or airplanes in the sky on two separate systems. Time spent flipping between the two meant time not focused on supporting guys on the ground.
SADL, which is also in some older model F-16 Fighting Falcons, has been used since the A-10C was developed. Moving a step forward, Army Capt. Jared Cox, assigned to 5-2 SBCT, was catalyst in developing the combined air and ground picture, providing A-10 pilots with the ability to see nearby aircraft and ground components simultaneously.
"December 26 (2009), working just 60 miles from here, I went out and began talking with the joint terminal attack controller about a convoy that he had outside the wire, and I was able to find him in a matter of seconds because they had an EPLRS-based system," Colonel Millen said. "It was a Stryker Brigade element and we found them in about 10 seconds. It would have taken us approximately 5 to 10 minutes to find them with reading back and forth coordinates and us looking for them on the roads. With the system we have in the airplane and the system they have on the Stryker, as well as the data link architecture that Captain Cox has set up, we were able to find them in seconds."
In its infancy stages, Captain Cox's data link picture still has a ways to go until more players are linked into the air-ground design, but after six months of operational use supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, the groundwork is there.
"Captain Cox set up preparing for this over a year ago and then he managed to set up the data link architecture so that it would feed both the ground picture and the air picture right in to our cockpit," Colonel Millen said. "We had never trained to it at that level until we got here, having only the air picture back in the states, but it's been a phenomenal addition to the suite of tools we have in the A-10C."
The value in combining the systems was not lost on the Army captain's chain of command, who gave him the autonomy to run the program. Captain Cox is currently working to get Link 16 players -- F-15E Strike Eagles, F-16s and many command and control platforms -- to see the same air, ground atmospheric.
"As the system has progressed, we've gone from what I would call our traditional style of doing CAS, we check and find things visually on the ground, we know where we are, we look at the map, we find the enemy, we find the friendlies, and then we begin to employ, we begin to escort or we begin to provide armed over watch," the squadron commander said. "With the Stryker Brigade combat team, with the EPLRS-based system and our data link, we are able to arrive on station and immediately find the friendlies, and whether you're offensive attacking, or defensive trying to protect the friendlies, you immediately find them and then you're able to progress from finding them, to finding the enemy, to attacking the enemy or protecting the friendlies, and you do it in about half the time."
At home station, approximately 24 jets per squadron will normally fly 7,000 hours in a year. While deployed, the 354th EFS Airmen, with half the number of airplanes, flew more than 10,000 hours in six-months. Approaching 2,500 sorties, that is more than 400 sorties a month, or a utilization rate of about 35, which is 210 percent the rate at home.
The commander attributed that success rate to the maintainers who are also deployed from Davis-Monthan AFB.
"They've done amazing things with these airplanes, they have kept them fixed all the time," he said. "This is a 30-year-old jet, and if you look, we have the same fully mission capable rate as the unmanned aircraft, which are 30 years newer, that's a testament to our maintainers. We bring the best people we can find, and they're the best people I've seen deployed, and it's a tough environment."
The environment is extreme; from the fine, talcum-like sand in the barren deserts to the high-elevations of the Hindu Kush Mountains, and temperatures ranging from below freezing to 120 degrees. It's also 24-hours-a-day of hard labor.
"The guys turning the wrenches really know what's going on out there, and that's what it comes down to," said Senior Master Sgt. John Russell, the 451st Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron lead production superintendent. "Those guys have never backed down. It doesn't matter what type of weather, hot or cold, because they know they've got to get the aircraft in the air to protect the guys on the ground. That motivates them to do it right."
Sergeant Russell said the main issues they ran into were engine problems.
"It is very difficult to keep all the sorties going for the amount of hours they're flying," he said. "Within a 48-hour period we changed eight motors, which is outstanding for these guys to put those aircraft back into the fight."
Protecting friendlies, attacking enemies
The A-10 can employ a wide variety of conventional munitions, including general-purpose bombs, cluster bomb units, laser-guided bombs, joint direct attack munitions, wind-corrected munitions dispenser, AGM-65 Maverick and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, rockets, illumination flares, and the GAU-8/A 30mm cannon, capable of firing 3,900 rounds per minute to defeat a wide variety of targets.
From July thru December 2009, the squadron employed approximately 36,915 rounds of 30mm, 104 white-phosphorus rockets, eight MK-82's, nine GBU-12's and 78 GBU-38 JDAMs (all 500-lb. bombs), and one AGM-65E laser-guided Maverick missile. That's about $3.75 million worth of munitions.
To the ground forces, those munitions are well worth the cost. When Combat Outpost Keating came under attack Oct. 3, 2009, the fighter squadron Airmen changed their entire schedule. While Colonel Millen slept, his "smart captains" and "smart majors" took control, realizing the weather was getting bad and A-10s would soon be needed. When the Combined Air Operations Center battle director called, they were ready to launch.
"We launched four early in the day, and they maintained presence all day over Keating, and then we launched four more at sunset and flew all night. Sure, we provided firepower, but more importantly somebody to provide airborne on-scene command," he said. "There were a lot of airplanes (both Army and Air Force) dedicated to this effort and a lot of people involved and not all of them could talk to each other. Our guys spent a lot of time overhead assigning tasks, sorting out who was doing what and providing information to the ground commanders involved.
"That's the day we flew the most sorties, we had eight jets airborne at one point, with two on alert and flew 100 hours in a 24-hour period," he added. "We flew some long sorties and our maintainers never slowed down."
Their abilities were first tested shortly after deploying; however, when a resupply convoy was ambushed up in the north July 29, 2009. The ground forces were hit with an ambush, and they took a lot of effective fire with several casualties.
"Somebody needed to just show up and take charge of the airborne piece, which is what our guys did," Colonel Millen said. "Two good, young captains went out and sorted it out and went out employing on enemy positions as they were firing down at our U.S. convoy.
"They protected the convoy and the 129th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron proceeded to continue to get guys evacuated out of there with their helicopters," he said. "That went on for several hours. We launched two more A-10s to do that, and again, guys pushing sorties out that weren't on the schedule, just taking airplanes out the door and fixing them and getting them going."
During the operation, one of the helicopters took enough small-arms fire to cause a hard-landing one-quarter mile from the ambush site. The 354th EFS Airmen launched another four airplanes to protect the convoy as casualties were transferred to another aircraft, and all the ground forces were safely cleared out.
"That was a good day because they did protect that convoy until they could get the situation settled down and get everybody safely out of there and headed back down to Kandahar," he said.
Despite the ambush, heavy fire and damaged helicopter, the three U.S. casualties and HH-60G Pave Hawk aircrews survived the attack.
Young, yet ready
When the two, six-ships flew from Tucson, Ariz., to Kandahar, Afghanistan, Colonel Millen had more flight hours in the A-10 than all five of his wingmen combined, not to mention more than the entire other six-ship combined as well.
The lead pilot in the second cell only had about 500 flight hours. Colonel Millen, a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, just surpassed his 3,000 flight hour-milestone Dec. 26, 2009.
"It's been amazing to watch; it was a very young squadron," he said. "Guys here stepped up and I've been phenomenally impressed with the guys along the way. The maintainers have been absolutely great with any situation -- for election day, Forward Operating Base Keating, the convoy ambush -- in all those cases we walked across the hall and said, we need more jets, and every time, we've launched two more and prepared two more.
"We've never had the CAOC ask us to extend, or ask us to launch additional aircraft, or ask us to do additional sorties, that we couldn't produce airplanes out of that aircraft maintenance unit over there to make it happen," he said. "It's not easy, and it means taking an airplane that you may have been working on and maybe you had scheduled for something else, and they put the whole thing back together and get it back on the schedule in a matter of minutes. That part has been amazing."
The squadron will be returning to Tucson soon. The commander, selected for Naval War College, will relinquish command Feb. 19, after leading the squadron for 27 months.
"For me personally, I hate the thought of giving up command, but I'm giving command to a fantastic guy who will do great things in the squadron," the Georgia native said. "But I'm not ready. I'd do it all again tomorrow. It's been a good ride, and commanding this squadron has been the greatest challenge, and the most rewarding thing on the planet."