WITH U.S. TROOPS IN SAUDI ARABIA -- The commander of the U.S. Air Force in Saudi Arabia had to eat crow -- or in this case "Warthog" -- three days after the Persian Gulf War began.

Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner, in charge of Central Command air forces, had initially opposed the deployment of the tank-killing A-10s -- the warplanes that the pilots affectionately call "Warthogs." Horner was overruled by Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney.

In a closed-door battle staff meeting a few days into the war, Horner admitted he was wrong. "I take back all the bad things I've ever said about the A-10s. I love them. They're saving our asses."

We reported last December that the image-conscious Air Force didn't like the A-10s because they are slow and ugly. The Army wanted them in the gulf because they do their job well, no matter how they look.

The A-10 emerged as one of the lumbering wonders of the war -- a Cinderella story about a plane that the Air Force was seriously considering putting on the scrap heap.

Army officials were relieved to hear Horner's mea culpa. "We would be in serious trouble if {the A-10s} hadn't come," one Army officer at the front told us before the start of the ground war. "They are the major weapons between us and the Iraqis."

Air Force generals and pilots always favor the glamorous, fast-flying jets. But the Army needs slower, heavily armored planes to stick tightly to the ground troops. The A-10 can go only 450 mph while the F-16 can fly more than 1,100 mph.

The chief armament of the A-10 is a monstrous 30mm, seven-barrel Gatling gun that fires 4,200 rounds a minute and can destroy a tank with a single, well-placed shot. It shoots dense, depleted-uranium ammunition that can penetrate a tank's armor.

The A-10s also carry Maverick missiles, 500-pound Mark 82 iron bombs and Rockeye anti-armor cluster bombs.

Capt. Jessie Morimoto, an Air Force intelligence officer at one of the forward air bases, said the A-10 took on more responsibilities with every passing week of the war. Warthogs were used to knock out Scud missile sites, artillery supply points, radar installations and surface-to-air missile sites. They even helped rescue a downed Navy pilot. And one engaged in an unexpected dogfight with an Iraqi helicopter. The A-10 won.

One reason the Iraqis had trouble shooting down the A-10s was that Iraqi anti-aircraft guns are usually fired at noise, and the A-10 is relatively quiet, particularly when compared to the other noises of a battlefield. One commander estimated that enemy gunners were able to identify A-10s by sound in only one of every 100 missions.

The sturdy plane is reinforced with titanium, which protects the engines and creates a heavy armor "bathtub" for the pilot. One A-10 took a hit that left a gaping hole in its right wing, destroyed a landing gear pod and took out one of the hydraulic systems. But the plane made it back.

Morimoto said the A-10s proved "that they're just as able to hit the target and get out without being hurt as anybody else -- and in some cases, better."