The A-10 Thunderbolt II, a jet beloved by U.S. ground troops and locked in a fierce budget battle in Washington, has been added to the arsenal the United States is using to target Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, Air Force officials said.
The planes arrived at an undisclosed base in the region between Nov. 17 and Nov. 21, and will support Operation Inherent Resolve — the mission against the Islamic State — and other operations in the region, Air Force officials said. They will be part of the 332nd Air Expeditionary Group, which was reactivated Nov. 16. The unit has a long history of combat operations, and worked from an air base in southwest Asia in 2011 to provide support to U.S. troops in Iraq as the last convoys left the country, military officials said.
The deployment comes during a political fight on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon about whether the A-10, nicknamed the Warthog, should be retired. Senior defense officials have said they want to get rid of the service’s remaining 283 A-10s to save $3.7 billion over five years, but critics, including Sen. John McCain, (R-Ariz.), said that will rob the military of an aircraft that is uniquely suited to target insurgents in ground wars.
The A-10s are with the 163rd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, and were used for close-air support operations in Afghanistan previously, Air Force officials said. The unit is with the Indiana Air National Guard.
The plane is well suited for the mission in Iraq and Syria, and a favorite of ground troops for the help it provides. Unlike some of the Pentagon’s newer fighter jets, the A-10 flies slowly, giving pilots more time to identify targets on the ground. The aircraft has an armored belly to protect pilots from ground fire, and carries a 30mm Gatling gun cannon and a variety of bombs, missiles and rockets. The plane has been in the Air Force since the 1970s and flown in combat missions since the 1990s.
Air Force officials have said that other planes, including the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, already are capable of providing close air support to troops on the ground. If the A-10 isn’t retired, it also could result in more delays to the fielding of the F-35.
Air Force officials said that the A-10s will be flying out of a base in southwest Asia. As Stars and Stripes has pointed out, the service has used that phrase to describe a variety of bases. Airstrikes in Iraq and Syria have been carried out from a variety of locations in the Persian Gulf, including Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, Ali al Salem Air Base in Kuwait and al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates.