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D-M's A-10s modernized

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Latest technology extends usefulness of three-decade-old attack jet

By Aaron Mackey

Arizona Daily Star

Tucson, Arizona | Published: 02.26.2008

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Davis-Monthan Air Force Base's already lethal fleet of Warthog attack jets

has a new set of teeth.

Comprehensive upgrades to the A-10 Thunderbolt attack jets' weapons systems,

cockpits and sensors completed recently have brought the aircraft into the

digital age, allowing more precise targeting and quicker communication with

units on the ground.

The upgrades, which cost $450 million, are part of a national effort to add

new technology to the A-10 and lengthen the life of an aircraft that's more

than three decades old.

Already a mainstay in providing close-air support in the conflicts in Iraq

and Afghanistan, the A-10's effectiveness in close-air-support missions is

greatly enhanced by the new technology, said Col. Kent Laughbaum, D-M's wing

commander.

"This has taken an airplane that was nearing retirement and given it a new

lease on life," he said. "It has made the weapons system viable until 2028

and possibly beyond."

"Into digital and information age"

While the A-10 has seen gradual upgrades throughout its more than 30 years

of service, the latest enhancements bring the jet into the 21st century,

said Maj. Jerry Cook, a weapons chief for the first D-M fighter squadron to

receive the latest model, a process that began more than a year ago and was

completed recently.

"It's really taking the A-10 into the digital and information age," Cook

said.

Before the upgrades, pilots still were working with hand-held maps and using

air controllers embedded with ground troops to direct them to enemy

positions.

Relaying the information, including providing a description of what a target

looked like and where it was relative to friendly positions, could take

several minutes, Laughbaum said. But with the upgrades, all of that

information is transmitted via a data network that can be accessed by ground

forces and pilots.

Instead of taking minutes to describe a target, a ground controller can

simply identify coordinates on a digital map of where enemy units are.

The A-10 pilot, using state-of-the-art weapons sensors, can get a close-up

view of enemy positions, allowing the jet to target them in seconds.

"It's precise, and it's as fast as it needs to be," Laughbaum said.

To get that information to pilots, two color display screens were added to

the A-10's instrument panel.

The displays allow pilots to pull up information from the network, access

data from their sensors, and communicate with friendly forces in real time.

Besides adding a networking component and better battle sensors, the

upgraded A-10s also feature improvements to the throttle stick and the

ability to use the latest precision-guided weapons.

That includes the Joint Direct Attack Munition, a satellite-guided weapon

that works in bad weather.

All of the technology available combines to make the latest version of the

jet, known as the A-10C, more efficient and lethal when it provides

close-air support to ground troops.

"When our soldiers and Marines are in close contact with the enemy, we're

going to bring the firepower to ensure that we win that fight," Laughbaum

said. "We've always been good at that, but the A-10C makes us significantly

better."

Wings to be strengthened

The technology isn't the only upgrade scheduled for the A-10, as an effort

is under way to strengthen the attack jets' wings.

By strengthening the wings, the A-10 will have a longer life span than was

expected, Laughbaum said.

Eventually, the Air Force plans to replace the wings on every A-10 as part

of an effort to keep the jet operational until 2028.

To keep the A-10 flying, as well as to pay for the production of new jets to

replace other aging aircraft in the Air Force's fleet, Pentagon commanders

are asking for a dramatic increase in funding.

Air Force planners figure they'll need an additional $20 billion during the

next five years on top of normal budget requests, such as the $137 billion

the military branch requested for 2009.

Years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq have worn down a fleet of aircraft

that already was nearing the end of its service life, Pentagon officials

have said. Additionally, maintenance on the aircraft becomes expensive as

the jets are repaired more frequently.

But it's not clear if the Air Force will get the funding to put newer

fighters, such as the F-22 and F-35, into the fleet.

Several factors could limit funding, including a rising federal deficit and

the prospect of a recession, though some critics contend the Air Force's

predicament is partially its own fault.

The newer jets have drastically higher price tags than the F-15s and F-16s

they're replacing, meaning they take up more defense-budget money, said

Steve Kosiak of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in

Washington, D.C.

"It's like replacing a Toyota with a Mercedes," he said.

3 D-M squadrons to get A-10C

While funding for long-term maintenance of the A-10 hasn't been identified,

D-M has become the epicenter for the latest technological upgrades.

The Tucson base features the first active-duty squadron with the upgraded

jet, and eventually all three fighter squadrons at D-M will fly the A-10C.

Other active-duty fighter wings in Georgia, as well as a handful of National

Guard units, also have begun to use the upgraded jet.

D-M is responsible for training both new and old pilots on the A-10C,

graduating the first class earlier this month, Laughbaum said.

So far, the 357th Fighter Squadron, which flies the latest version of the

A-10, has trained roughly 100 pilots, he said.

The latest A-10C was deployed to Afghanistan last August, flying close to

1,000 combat sorties, Air Force figures show.

Given the increased mission of D-M and the latest technology upgrades, it's

clear that the A-10 will continue to be a central component of the Air

Force's arsenal.

"It is a primary component in the war on terror," Laughbaum said. "We know

that it is going to be an aircraft that is going to fly for a long time."

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