I was talking to a Joint Terminal Attack Controller recently who spent a lot of time in Afghanistan. We were discussing the different platforms that are lifesavers to troops in contact with the enemy. Obviously, the A-10 came up as he made it very clear that the airframe-gun combo that makes up the A-10 is incredibly powerful, especially when trying to surgically take out Taliban fighters operating very close to friendly troops and/or in urban environments where the chances of harm to innocent bystanders is really high. He pointed me to a video he said was a great example of what this looks like, so I thought I would share it with you and break it down a bit.
The setting of the video is above a village in Afghanistan, one surrounded by steep mountains and made up of very similar looking low-rise structures that are so prevalent in the country. In it, troops are under direct fire from fighters taking cover around a number of buildings close by. A section of A-10 Warthogs, callsign HOG 01 and HOG 04, have arrived overhead to give much needed close air support to American soldiers that have found themselves in an increasingly dire situation.
What comes next are a number of gun runs in which the A-10 pilots rapidly employ their extremely potent 30mm GAU-8 Avenger cannons against the nearby fighters with great precision. The voice you are hearing requesting the strafing runs is the JTAC on the ground, callsign NIGHT OWL.
To help you interpret what you are seeing in the A-10’s Heads Up Display (HUD), above is a screencap from the video. Here is the important information it is displaying in regards to what is going on. The 323 on the left is the airspeed in knots. Across from it, the 4860 is the barometric altitude. Below it is a -9, which means the aircraft is in a nine-degree dive. The 590 below that in the corner right stack is the radar altimeter’s altitude, so the true height above the ground in this case. The next three lines have to do with steering points, which can include tagged locations on the earth’s surface and their time and distance to the aircraft’s present location. The bottom number is the current time.
At the center bottom of the screen is the heading, with the jet pointing north. ARM means the master arm is on and the aircraft is ready to employ its weapons. Above that is the selected weapon profile and the quantity and type of weapon. In this case, the aircraft shows 950 rounds of high-explosive incendiary 30mm ammunition ready to fire. The upper left figure is the G-force on the aircraft at any given moment. In this case 1.4G.
In the center is the pitch ladder with the gun’s aiming reticle towards the top. Once in firing range, the inner circle highlight begins to diminish, with the approximate range to where the gun is pointing, or the constantly computed impact point on the ground, showing in miles. In this case 1.5 as in 1.5 miles. The little ball-bar inside of the reticle is the velocity vector showing where the aircraft is headed.
With all that being said, here’s the video:
The A-10s arrive for a show of force pass over the target in an attempt to scare the enemy away and to get a better idea of the situation on the ground and where everyone is at. NIGHT OWL calls in, with the rackety sounds of battle loud in the background, frantically requesting the A-10s fire their guns on the enemy. What comes next is the lead A-10 pilot working to deconflict bad guys and the friendlies in the target area. The JTAC tells the flight that he has marked the target with smoke, to strafe it as soon as they can, and that friendly forces are clear of the target location. Keep in mind that when the gun is used instead of high-explosive missiles or bombs, it often means that friendly troops are in fact in very close proximity to the marked target.
The A-10 pilot calmly confirms that the target building is in sight, friendly forces are in sight, and that he is going to make a north to south run on the target firing the jet’s cannon. The JTAC on the ground responds that the A-10 is cleared hot in a manner that sounds like it couldn’t happen soon enough. The A-10 then pumps 220 rounds into the target in two bursts and pulls off into a climb. You can see the intense effects of the HEI ammunition as it impacts the target area.
Then the A-10 asks NIGHT OWL for the status of him and his troops on the ground. NIGHT OWL responds in a much more up-beat tone that everyone is ok. The strafing run was clearly successful, but his position is still taking fire so the A-10s prepare for another pass. The smoke from the attack is used by the A-10 pilot as a point of reference for NIGHT OWL to correct his fire to better target the remaining enemy forces. NIGHT OWL tells him to start his next gun run 200 meters south of the smoke.
It is this high-pressure game of three-dimensional visual-verbal situational awareness building that A-10 pilots master to an astonishing degree. Their expertise and experience mean faster re-attacks that are more precise and thus deadly. The gun plays into this special ability as it is the tool that can bring a lot of hurt to the enemy quickly while troops are still very close to the bad guys.
This time HOG 01 and HOG 04 make consecutive runs on the target, with the NIGH OWL correcting HOG 01’s fire 100 meters to the north with rapid directions to HOG 04 which has already rolled in on the target.
NIGHT OWL, now sounding far more relaxed, exclaims “HOG element good guns, good guns!” meaning their attack runs were a success.
HOG 01 then asks if NIGHT OWL needs another gun run. NIGHT OWL responds, telling the flight of A-10s to standby as he assesses the situation. HOG 01 then says he is going to make a non-firing pass to mark the target area’s location in his navigational computer system.
That’s where the video ends. It’s worth noting that at the end of the video, HOG 01 had expended 410 rounds and still has 740 more left in its magazine. An F-16 carries 511 20mm rounds and an F-35A carries 180 25mm rounds, both of which are far inferior to the A-10’s coke bottle sized 30mm shells.
All in all, it is a compelling example of A-10 pilots and JTACs plying their deadly trade with incredible efficiency and yet another reminder of the unique value the Warthog brings to the fight. No other jet aircraft or their crews are as adept at flying and fighting at low-level and bringing pain to the enemy as quickly, as accurately, or as ferociously.
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