AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq - Capt. Brian "Snap" Curland, a deployed member of the 175th Fighter Wing, Maryland Air National Guard, made history here when he dropped the first Joint Direct Attack Munition from the newly upgraded A-10C Thunderbolt II in combat Sept. 19.
The captain's strike, and the Air Guard's participation and support of precision engagement for the A-10, mark a historic new range of capabilities and accuracy the aircraft is bringing to the battlefield.
Curland was on his second sortie here when he came upon a former safe house that insurgents had established as a house-borne improvised explosive device. The building had been rigged to detonate when Soldiers swept through the town.
"When I put that out and dropped it, it was basically two buildings away from a mosque. And we obviously don't want to be doing any damage to significant religious centers and people who aren't in the conflict at all," Curland said.
Despite the proximity of residential buildings and the mosque, structures immediately adjacent to the target suffered little more than a dusting from the attack. No coalition forces or noncombatants were harmed.
"With this munition, we're able to pinpoint a building," said Curland with the 438th Air Expeditionary Group. "Collateral damage is about zero. When the bomb impacts, it buries itself into the building and then detonates so you're looking at basically just taking the building out from the inside out instead of the outside in like before."
Thanks to the A-comprehensive digital upgrade completed by the Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve and Air Force, newly modified A-10C's are bringing a new level of accuracy and versatility to close air support in Iraq.
This evolution to precision engagement allows A-10 pilots to strike targets with pinpoint accuracy, eliminating the threat to American forces and non-combatants on the ground.
A new 'SADL'
The upgrades to the aircraft have taken an analog system and brought it into a digital era, said Lt. Col. Eric Mann, 438th AEG pilot, and Operational Requirements division chief for the National Guard Bureau.
A new hands-on throttle and stick system improves the pilot's situational awareness, allowing the flyer to keep his or her "head on a swivel." The aircraft has fully integrated electronics and new avionics systems.
Through the Situational Awareness Data Link, or SADL, pilots are able to literally show their fellow pilots and ground forces what they see from their cockpit in real time.
"Essentially, it shortens the kill chain," said Mann, who is also a member of the Maryland ANG. By instantly sharing data and camera feeds, a process that took up to 30 minutes over the radio before now happens in seconds.
"I can transmit my image from the advanced targeting pod to the ground forces who can confirm it," he said. "I can transmit what I'm looking at to my wingman digitally without having to "˜talk his eyes' onto the 'red roof building' when there's hundreds down there. He can actually see it the same time I am."
At the center of the A-10C's close air support mission is the elimination of improvised explosive devices. In some cases, they escort troops or convoys on missions and foot patrols, said Capt. Richard Hunt, a weapons and tactics officer deployed from the Maryland ANG.
The new capabilities of the aircraft reflect the complex nature of that mission. The A-10C has 11 weapons stations from wingtip to wingtip, in addition to its famous primary weapon, the seven-barrel, 30 mm Gatling gun.
"I have no idea what situation I'll find myself in when I arrive in a target area," said Hunt. "It's constantly changing on the ground, and the insurgency and the enemy is constantly changing. I need to have a huge variety of different weapons on the airplane so I can deal with a specific situation."
More than a decade ago, the Air Force began discussions on upgrading the A-10. With so many critical projects for the Department of Defense to address, it seemed the "legacy" aircraft's upgrades would stall. Before October 2006, it appeared that only a portion of the Air Force's inventory would be upgraded.
The Air National Guard, and its six A-10 fighter wings stepped up to aid the developmental program. They worked closely with the Air Combat Command and the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.
In addition to funding from the National Guard, the Air Reserve Component brought the resources and experience the community needed to make the upgrade a reality. Its current incarnation is expected to be viable through 2028.
A Total Force reality
"We went out to Nellis and lived the Total Force dream," said Chief Master Sgt. Terry Allen, 438th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron superintendent and member of the Maryland ANG. The chief served as the enlisted leader for developmental testing.
"We interacted with the active duty, the Air Force Reserve and Guard personnel. We brought some experience to the table. We had a good handle on the legacy system on the aircraft and expanded on those in terms of integration and engagement."
As new modifications were implemented, maintainers worked directly with contractors to develop technical orders, data and drawings. As they went, they wrote the training programs associated with the changes. Aircrews and maintainers were integrated and brought up to speed simultaneously.
The upgrades started in earnest in November 2005. Air Guard specialists from six different states rotated in and out of Nevada to facilitate the process. The team finished in June 2007, and just weeks later, members from every component of the upgrade team found themselves in Iraq in combat in the new A-10Cs.
Weeks after that, the first JDAM launched from an A-10C struck its target dead center.
To date, the new system has performed in a "close to flawless" manner, according to Allen. The squadron has not dropped a single Central Command Air Forces tasking - a feat he credits to the successful implementation of upgrades and the hard work of maintainers before and throughout the deployment.
"We feel very, very proud," said Staff Sgt. Nick Draxler, 438th Air Expeditionary Group weapons loader deployed from the Maryland ANG. "It took thousands of man hours and lots of work to bring this aircraft to battle in a fully functional way. Now these aircraft performed as well as we have to get them here."