Photo credit Gary Wetzel

The A-10 Warthog is the aerial savior for ground troops everywhere, and despite its advancing age and having been in near-constant combat for 15 years now, the recently released U.S. Air Force fiscal year 2018 defense budget once again indicates it will stay flying for some time. But what a lot of people don’t know is that this revered aircraft’s first mission to attack the Taliban over Afghanistan was nearly a disaster.

The A-10 force has seen significant downsizing since the first Warthogs went into combat a few months after 9/11, but the force has matured and been significantly upgraded during that time, making the A-10 one of the most connected and capable aircraft in the Air Force’s inventory. It’s not fast and it’s not pretty, but the A-10 can loiter over the battlefield longer than other attack aircraft once it gets there. And with 11 weapons hardpoints to carry JDAMs, Maverick missiles, laser guided rockets and an advanced targeting system, it packs quite a punch.

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And then there’s the gun. The 30mm GAU-8 that is the entire reason for the jet’s existence and its primary mission of close air support.

Today the Warthog fleet numbers 283 airframes spread across active duty, Guard and Reserve units in Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Turkey. It’s a vital tool in the combat operations of the War on Terror, but its first outing there was an incredibly precarious one.

During extensive interviews I conducted with numerous individuals familiar with the A-10's participation in Anaconda, a clearer picture of the Warthog’s involvement can be seen and how the lack of initially incorporating the A-10 into the original battle plan came off as extremely short-sighted.

Operation Anaconda

For five days in early March 2002, five A-10s attacked Al Qaeda and Taliban targets from a Pakistani air base at Jacobabad in central Pakistan and home to a portion of Pakistan’s F-16 fighters.

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This was the first time the Warthog had been used in combat to fight terrorism, taking place during the highly flawed Operation Anaconda. The op was designed to trap a large force of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters riding out the winter in a series of small villages in the Shah-i-Kot Valley, but all of it was poorly conceived.

Almost immediately, the ground forces became more heavily engaged than expected. Obviously the enemy fighters in the targeted valley were not just hunkered down for a long winter of rest as expected. Air support for the operation was limited and planning conducted by Combined Joint Task Force Mountain was closely held, so much so that the Air Force group that was to provide aircraft only received the plans four days prior to the kickoff of Anaconda on March 2.

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Expecting a relatively easy mission, commanders scaled back the need for airpower based on recent experience.

The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which was steaming in the Northern Arabian Sea and was also poised to support Anaconda, was asking everyone and anyone for more information on the operation—especially exactly where Anaconda was going to take place.

As the operation began, A-10As of the 74th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron were flying missions from Ahmed Al Jaber Airbase in Kuwait to support Operation Southern Watch over Iraq and providing combat search and rescue support in the event coalition aircraft went down and had to be rescued.

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At Ahmed Al Jaber, U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles and F-16C Vipers also shared the ramp and were making the three-hour drive to Afghanistan, loiter over the battlefield and then fly three hours back. To make the same trip would have taken the Warthogs more than five hours each way.

At this point, Warthogs were not the technological marvels they are now, and this also factored into the decision to keep the Warthog flying over Iraq and not Afghanistan. The early combat in Afghanistan was driven by Special Operations Forces (SOF) working independently or with Afghan allies to direct ground interdiction strikes using larger weapons. The Eagles and Vipers were primarily using laser-guided bombs to hit enemy targets.

At this point flying over Afghanistan the only guided munition the A-10 carried was the Maverick missile. Using an infrared sensor to attack targets, the Maverick was often used by A-10 pilots at night as a ‘poor man’s targeting pod’ to search for targets as they wept the missile’s sensor over a very narrow swath of ground looking for targets.

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Command and control over the Shah-i-Kot was also almost non-existent. Most aircraft that were launched the first two days from Kuwait spent hours loitering over the valley and then returning to Kuwait with their full bomb load. No one was running the big picture to utilize the aircraft turning circles overhead.

A decision was made late March 3 to prepare to possibly send two A-10s to the Shah-i-Kot to take control of the skies over the valley and direct the airpower where it could have the greatest effect. Two A-10 pilots—Captain Scott Campbell and Lt. Colonel Ed Kostelnik—would be the pilots selected to fly the first mission and both were graduates of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School, so both could manage the air assets in the best possible way.

Despite the warning order to prepare the A-10s to go forward, most believed that it would not actually happen. It did happen however, and on the morning of March 4, the two selected A-10 pilots began the long flight from Kuwait to Afghanistan.

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Their mission was simple: take charge of the airspace for Operation Anaconda the best they could and make sure the bombs were dropped on the right people.

As the two pilots took off for Afghanistan, a real concern was that they had no idea where they would be landing. Returning to Kuwait was one option, but the command staff was working on other options as well, hoping to find an airfield closer to the battle than over five hours away like Kuwait was.

After five-and-a-half hours and a nearly missed air-refueling rendezvous that would have scuttled the entire mission, the two A-10s arrived over the Shah-i-Kot Valley at the worst possible time: sunset. There would be no chance to get a good feel for the valley before having to switch to night vision.

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When I sat down with Capt. Campbell to talk about the mission he explained the problem they faced as they looked down at the rapidly darkening landscape.

“It was like looking into a big black hole. Knowing that you have high terrain on either side only complicates things. We had to be higher than we would normally have been so as to stay away from those peaks where many of the AAA threats were. We were forced to stay close to 20,000 ft. At this altitude, with 10 of 11 hardpoints loaded with ordnance, the jet weighed almost 45,000 pounds, making it an absolute pig to fly.”

There was little control over the air assets and confusion was running throughout the valley. With over 100 different frequencies to work through the A-10 pilots began the task of finding someone in need of close air support.

Close air support is one of the missions the Warthog was designed for. With its exceptional handling, low speed, heavily protected cockpit and the 30mm gun that is devastating to most military equipment, the A-10 could deliver support to troops in very close contact with the enemy who needed air support to survive.

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Eventually, on one frequency they came across, three different groups were screaming for close air support.

They chose the guy screaming the loudest and went to work.

Over Unfriendly Skies

The Army unit they chose to support first was pinned down by an enemy mortar team they believed was 700 meters south of their position. The mortars were steadily being walked closer and closer to their position which was marked by a single IR strobe for friendly forces to identify. The IR strobe could be seen through the night-vision goggles the pilots were wearing, providing both aircraft and men the opportunity to avoid a friendly fire incident.

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Campbell was not comfortable with dropping a 500 pound Mk 82 airburst bomb on what the soldiers’ definition of 700 meters was without first trying to determine the range himself. The Mk 82 airburst had a larger explosive pattern than the regular Mk 82, and they had to be sure where the enemy really was. Campbell lined up to fire a single white phosphorus rocket to get a better of idea of the range the soldiers on the ground were talking about.

Letting the rocket go, the impact was immediate and bright. Correcting off the explosion, the A-10 pilots had a better idea of where to drop bombs. Two Mk 82s were dropped and the mortar team ceased firing.

As the fighting during Anaconda reached panic mode, the valley was filled with surging aircraft from both the Navy and Air Force. Summoning them to do their bidding were 37 different ground controllers, each asking for help and making the danger of a mid-air collision was very possible. Multiple times that night it nearly did happen in the skies above the Shah-i-Kot. After almost hitting an AC-130 that no one knew was in the area, the two A-10 pilots were flying a loose formation when a streaking Navy F-18 slashed between them.

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Finally, Campbell almost had a Predator drone bounce off his canopy as both aircraft were operating in the same altitude block and as they were working to deconflict with the drone pilots, several bombs went off beneath them as another Navy Hornet had dropped ordnance through their altitude.

Delving back to their Cold War-era training, the A-10 pilots began taking charge of the entire valley as a tactical airborne coordinator aircraft (TAC-A). Both pilots began working the radios and built a frequency plan where everyone who entered or left the battlespace would do so on just one frequency.

It was at this point that the two Warthog pilots had finally been informed where they were going to land. They would not be returning to Kuwait, but instead would be the leading element to forward deploy to a Pakistani airbase at Jacobabad.

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Jacobabad had been the first choice among the planners for the mission but the Pakistanis wanted no part in American fighters flying from one of their air bases. Other air fields in several other nations had been considered, but the base in Pakistan was the best fit as it was less than 400 miles from the battle. In order to meet the close air support requirements now flooding in from the command overseeing Operation Anaconda flying the A-10s from Jacobabad would provide the troops in contact with the most coverage from the air.

The Pakistani government eventually relented. Despite the presence of a small group of American combat search and rescue forces within the country and the constant stream of American fighters, bombers and support aircraft transitioning Pakistani airspace to and from Afghanistan the idea of fighter sized aircraft launching attacks from within was too much of problem for Islamabad to deal with. The Americans could stage A-10 operations from the base only as long as troops were still in contact in the Shah-i-Kot Valley during Anaconda.

With that solved, and nearing 10 hours stuffed in the cockpit of a Warthog they were released to Jacobabad—which was still an hour away.

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A hundred miles out from the Pakistani airbase, Campbell attempted to make radio contact with the command post. The response was not a positive one, but at this point in the mission, totally not expected as Campbell explained to me:

“We didn’t have the fuel to turn around and go anywhere else, plus we had been airborne for nearly 12 ours. We were landing, no matter what. I told them again who we were and that we were landing, so they needed to get ready for us. Still, I hoped this was just a misunderstanding at the local level. We had instructions to come in blacked out and luckily I managed not to strip the landing gear off. Landing at night with goggles was something I had never done before – another first for me during the mission. When we taxied to the small hammerhead at the end of the runway we could barely fit our jets in there and sure enough no one was there waiting for us. I called the tower and asked where the de-arm crew was, and the response I got was ‘What’s that?’ Right after that two Humvees armed with .50 cal machine guns raced toward us and as soon as they reached us soldiers jumped out with rifles and immediately set up a defensive perimeter around our jets. I turned to look at my wingman and asked him over the radio ‘What is this place we’ve come to where we’re in de-arm and I have to have these guys defending us?’”

The A-10s would be allowed to fly from Pakistan with a few conditions: only five A-10s could be based at Jacobabad, they could only fly at night, would have to remain hidden during the day, and once Anaconda was over they had to be immediately withdrawn.

All were reasonable requests, except for the idea of hiding the A-10s during the day as the shelters at the air base were designed for J-7s and F-16s. The A-10 had a wingspan nearly twice those and simply would not fit. And with the battle in the Shah-i-Kot in full gear, the A-10s would also be needed during daylight hours.

The second A-10 mission to Afghanistan, and the first from launched from Pakistan, would prove to have a huge effect on the outcome of the battle as the same two A-10 pilots would take on a mass of Al Qaeda forces looking to mount a counterattack on American forces.

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After a slow start to the mission with only a few air strikes to control the Warthog pilots got a glimpse of the future as they were directed to a target by a Predator drone. An enlisted tactical attack controller had been working with a Predator to track a series of vehicles travelling in the southern part of the Shah-i-Kot where they had stopped and parked in small, narrow valley.

Further observation placed approximately 200-300 Taliban fighters scurrying down the sides of this valley which would become known as EA Ratline and would soon become a free-fire zone.

Between the two Warthogs, they still had six 500 pound Mk 82 airbursts that would absolutely turn the narrow valley into carnage. After marking the target area with another rocket, the two Warthogs proceeded to deliver 3,000 pounds of air burst weapons. Secondary explosions rocketed the valley as the trucks and weapons began to ignite. At this point the Warthogs had one weapon yet to use: the 30mm gun. As Campbell related:

“‘We were running out of gas and really pushing it, but we knew there were enemy fighters trapped in the valley and we were just going to keep on pounding them. There really was no way out for them. We had yet to shoot the gun, and it was about time someone heard the weapon as there is nothing else that sounds like the A-10’s gun. I set up my attack run and rolled in, putting down two bursts totalling about 350 rounds of HEI. I shot from a 2.5-mile slant range at about 19,000 ft on a 45 degree wire. I pulled the trigger for the first burst for two seconds, before “walking” the gun further down the valley for another burst. Lt Col Kostelnik did exactly the same thing. The blast from our six airburst Mk 82s would have been unbelievable in that confined space of the valley.”

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After-action reports would indicate that upward of 200 Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters were killed in the valley. U.S. Army soldiers and Australian SAS entered the mouth of the valley the following day, looking at some of the wrecked vehicles and searching for possible intelligence and reported back that the enemy had taken a substantial pounding and that pink mist was hanging in the valley from the airstrikes and gun runs.

For five days Warthogs flew from Pakistan before there was too much heat from the Pakistanis to get out of town. Daylight flights, Pakistani jets trying to intercept an A-10 that had accidently overflown a nuclear facility and the threat of local action against the small forward deployed group all lead to the mission being terminated.

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The Warthogs, their pilots and support personnel all proved they could forward deploy and make a huge difference in the fight. Back in Kuwait, it would only be two weeks before the Warthogs were moved forward again. This time to Bagram air base in Afghanistan where they would support Operation Enduring Freedom until late 2014. The target would shift again, this time to ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Not Gone Yet

Budget after budget it seems as if the USAF has tried its best to rid itself of the A-10, and this process is not something new either. Had it not been for Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the Warthog would have gone away quietly but was saved by its performance in the war.

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Since then, the A-10 has been in every combat operation since 1991: Kuwait, Iraq, Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Iraq again. The A-10 has consistently proven its worth in protecting the lives of coalition forces. It does not have stealth features or blinding speed, but the Warthog is the best close air support aircraft the U.S. military owns—and this fact has repeatedly proven this over and over again.

The A-10 will have to be retired one day. But that day is not yet here, and it’s easy to see why so many troops would prefer keeping this specialized airframe and its fraternity of pilots around as long as possible.

Gary Wetzel is an experienced military and aviation writer who has authored two books examining the combat operations of the A-10 Warthog in Afghanistan. He also served over six years in the U.S Navy as sonar technician aboard USS Philadelphia and USS Dallas.