The United States Air Force’s Fairchild A-10 Warthog community held its biennial Hawgsmoke gunnery competition at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base on July 10th, 2014. This was D-M’s second consecutive time hosting Hawgsmoke, as the locally-based 357th Fighter Squadron “Dragons” had taken the title of top attack team during Hawgsmoke 2012, which was also held at Davis-Monthan, securing the honor of hosting the competition there once again.

Words & Photography: Joe Copalman

Fourteen A-10 squadrons from the Air Force, Air Force Reserve, and Air National Guard sent teams of pilots and maintainers to D-M to participate in Hawgsmoke 2014. While most participating squadrons brought their own aircraft, those that were based too far to make the trip practical or those that are reserve-component associate squadrons (units that do not have aircraft assigned, but rather use the aircraft of co-located active-duty squadrons) flew in A-10s borrowed from squadrons based at D-M.

Origins and Preparation

Hawgsmoke began in 2000 as a means of reigniting the spirit of camaraderie and competition that the Air Force attack community had lost when Gunsmoke, the service’s long-standing air-to-ground gunnery competition had been canceled in 1995. Hawgsmoke is traditionally a multi-day event, with several social events and intramural competitions, but the centerpiece is the tactical competition, which tests the skills of each A-10 squadron across the broad spectrum of roles the Warthog fills. The events vary from year to year, with the host unit being responsible for determining what they will be. This year, the focus was on forward-firing ordnance, with a “retro” Cold War/Fulda Gap theme restricting pilots to navigation and targeting modes that approximated what was available to A-10 pilots in the early 1980s, a time when, as the Hawgsmoke 2014 Rules of Engagement (ROEs) put it, “you, your Hawg, and your standby pipper were better friends and the Soviets were better enemies.”

This year’s Hawgsmoke came against the backdrop of a budget crisis throughout all branches of the US military and with the A-10’s future being as uncertain as it has ever been. Given the forcefulness of the arguments made by some in the Air Force, the DOD, and Congress in favor of retiring the A-10, there is much speculation that this may in fact be the last Hawgsmoke event ever held. On the other hand, it also happened at a time when both Russia and Iran were supplying the Iraqi Air Force with Sukhoi Su-25s to combat the growing threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), demonstrating the persistent efficacy of purpose-built ground attack aircraft. In June, the US Congress voted to prevent the Air Force from retiring the A-10 for at least another year, a welcome reprieve for the A-10 community and the group troops that rely on it for effective CAS, but that by no means assures the type’s long-term survival.

Selection of each squadron’s team for Hawgsmoke 2014 was largely the responsibility of each squadron’s Weapons Officer. First Lieutenant James “Squat” Rosenau, an A-10 pilot with Davis-Monthan’s 354th Fighter Squadron “Bulldogs” explains the selection process: “It's usually up to the Weapons Officer.  So what happens in the case of the Bulldogs is in the months leading up to it, we fly out to these same ranges and we kind of have a little practice, and whoever consistently does the best, the weapons officer will say, ‘Hey, you're going to the team.’  There are also some restrictions with the rules, where you can't stack it to where all four pilots are just these really high-performance guys. For instance, I'm just a wingman, I'm not even a flight lead yet, so one of the people has to be just a wingman.  You can't stack the deck.”

The competition itself was broken up into three events – an Aerial Interdiction strike, a Combat Search and Rescue Exercise, and a series of rocket and gun attacks at a manned range. For the range events, all participating aircraft were loaded with 1150 rounds of 30mm ammunition and two AGM-65 Maverick missiles (one infrared-guided, the other electro-optical). A prohibition on loading aircraft with 2.75” rockets on the Snowbird ramp, the part of the base used to host visiting Air National Guard and other units on weapons detachments to Davis-Monthan and where all visiting A-10s participating in the competition were parked, resulted in the rocket events being canceled. While there were only three events, multiple skillsets were tested through them. In terms of primary mission sets, the events were planned to cover aerial interdiction (AI), close air support (CAS), combat search and rescue (CSAR), and forward air control (FAC-A).

Let the Games Begin

The first event, an aerial interdiction sortie, took place in the Ruby/Fuzzy military operating area (MOA) and involved the (simulated) use of AGM-65 Maverick missiles, one of the A-10’s primary weapons. Aerial Interdiction is a core A-10 mission set involving the destruction of enemy troops and equipment far from one’s own troops. The vast majority of A-10 sorties during Operation Desert Storm were AI missions against fielded Iraqi artillery and armor in Kuwait, targets that the A-10 is ideally suited to destroy. During this Hawgsmoke evolution, each flight was given a specific Time on Target (ToT), with each pilot being assigned to hit a discreet target. In keeping with the “throwback” theme of the competition, navigation to the AI area was to be done using only the much older Inertial Navigation System (INS). Each team was scored on three metrics – Time on Target (with penalties for being +/- the scheduled ToT), attack time (time elapsed from first attempted “launch” to the final “impact”), and accuracy/target sort (did each pilot hit his or her assigned target). Once all pilots on each team had attempted to engage their assigned target, the flight transitioned to the CSAR event.

The A-10’s CSAR mission tends to not get the same attention as the CAS/AI taskings do, but it is still one of the Warthog’s primary mission sets, and a crucial one at that. At the heart of the CSAR mission is the Rescue Mission Commander, known as “Sandy 1,” with Sandy being the historical callsign of fixed-wing CSAR escort pilots going back to the Douglas A-1 Skyraider during the Vietnam War. Rescue Mission Commanders are highly-experienced A-10 pilots that undergo extensive training in locating and authenticating survivors on the ground, identifying and securing safe ingress and egress routes for rescue helicopters, and managing the flow of rescue vehicles and other supporting aircraft in the vicinity of the survivor. In explaining what makes the A-10 particularly well-suited for the CSAR mission, Lieutenant Rosenau tells AC.m “The long time on station is one of the biggest things. Working with the HH-60s, we’re allowed to stay on station to make sure the survivor is safe, and make sure the path for the helicopter, their ingress route is safe as well.” The CSAR portion of the Hawgsmoke 2014 put each team’s survivor-location skills to the test. For this portion of the competition, each flight was to remain above 10,000 feet MSL while searching for a “survivor” within a five-minute timeframe. The “survivor” in this case was an actual pilot on the ground with a handheld radio attempting to “talk” pilots on to his location, since, as Hawgsmoke 2014 director Lt Col Sam Berengeur explains, “There is no CSAR without somebody on the ground that you have to recover.” Pilots were allowed to use several means of locating the survivor, including voice contact via radio, Automatic Direction Finder and LITENING targeting pod, but prohibited from using advanced CSAR tools like the Quickdraw II CSAR interrogator or the Lightweight Airborne Recovery System. Once the flight lead had input what they thought to be the survivor’s location as a waypoint in their navigation system, or if the five-minute time limit expired before a location was input, each flight then transitioned to Range 2, a manned range just north of Ajo, Arizona.

While the rocket attacks were canceled due to weapons loading restrictions on the Snowbird ramp at D-M, it is important to note the real-world mission they are tied to. This portion of the competition would have had the pilots employing 2.75-inch (70-millimeter) unguided rockets with white phosphorous (WP) warheads against a target in the middle of Range 2’s “nuke circle.” Airborne Forward Air Controllers (FAC-As) have used WP rockets since the Korean War to mark targets, which they then guide other aircraft to attack using position and distance corrections from the location of lingering smoke from the rocket’s warhead to the actual target. A FAC-A who has accurately marked his target will not need to give corrections, as he can simply say “Hit my smoke.” Hawgsmoke’s high-angle-rocket event would have challenged pilots (some of who may not be FAC-A qualified) to accurately place their rockets precisely on target. With this portion of the range events canceled, the competitors focused solely on employment of the A-10’s primary weapon, the GAU-8/A “Avenger” 30mm cannon.

The Avenger is a seven-barreled Gatling-type cannon that fires 30mm armor-piercing rounds at a rate of up to 4,200 rounds per minute. Referred to by A-10 pilots as simply “the gun,” the GAU-8 was designed to destroy Soviet armor in the event of a conventional war in Europe between NATO and the Warsaw Pact nations. While that conflict never came, the A-10 proved its value – and that of the gun – in the skies over Kuwait and southern Iraq in 1990 during Operation Desert Storm, where it was used to devastating effect against Iraqi forces on aerial interdiction, combat search and rescue, and even suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) missions. For the latter, the A-10 was pressed into service to locate operational surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites that had stopped emitting and to destroy the radars, control vans, launchers, and missiles using the GAU-8 and free-fall ordnance. Desert Storm also saw the gun being used in two successful air-to-air engagements against Iraqi helicopters, with the A-10 ending that war with a higher air-to-air kill count than the Air Force’s F-16s and Navy’s F-14s combined.

The Global War on Terror, with its lack of hard armored targets, gave the A-10 another venue in which to prove the worth of the GAU-8. As the mission in both Afghanistan and Iraq shifted to counterinsurgency and the “hearts and minds” dimension of the conflicts became more important, concerns over collateral damage grew. Where iron bombs and AGM-65 missiles relied on both concussive and fragmentation effects which could cause damage to structures and individuals the ground forces did not want targeted, the gun relied solely on kinetic force as its kill mechanism, which greatly reduces the potential for unwanted collateral damage. Lieutenant Rosenau tells AC.m that the lower collateral-damage footprint of the A-10 has been an advantage, explaining that “There’s a much smaller frag radius, it’s much much smaller with the gun just because with our computed gunsight, wherever that pipper is in your HUD, that’s where the bullets are going, without question.”

Under the Hawgsmoke 2014 rules of engagement, the computed gunsights were not used during the strafe events at Range 2, with all pilots having to rely instead on their backup pipper, described by one A-10 pilot as being the equivalent of using a “booger on the windscreen” as an aiming point. Each flight of four made multiple high-angle attacks on a vehicle target on a “raked” range about a mile from the range tower, with the results of each strafe pass being recorded by a system - the Weapons Impact Scoring System (WISS) – that used triangulated video cameras to determine the points of impact using distance and clock positions. With a series of both 30º and 45º strafe attacks made on the vehicle target, the competitors turned their attention to the “rags” – a set of two large cruciform targets with a three-meter-square impact area suspended between two posts. Each flight made two long-range strafe passes on the rag targets, engaging from over 1,000 yards (914.4 meters) away. Any pilot that scored a hit on the first pass was then cleared for a low-angle strafe pass, which like the long-range strafe was at roughly a 3º attack angle, but with the gun fired in much closer proximity to the target. With each pilot having to rely on a fixed, manual gunsight, not many pilots were cleared for low-angle strafe on their second pass.

Certain Results, Uncertain Future

When scores from all tactical events were tabulated, Davis-Monthan’s own 47th Fighter Squadron came out on top. Overall and individual event scores were as follows:

Top Tactical Team

  1. 47FS – “Dogpatchers.”
  2. 66WPS – Nellis AFB
  3. AATC/422TES – DMAFB/Tucson IAP

Overall Top range teams

  1. 104FS – Maryland ANG
  2. 190FS – “Skullbangers,” Idaho ANG
  3. 76FS – “Vanguards,” Moody AFB

Overall Top Maverick teams

  1. 104FS – Maryland ANG
  2. 47FS – “Dogpatchers,” DMAFB ARFC
  3. 75FS – “Tigersharks” Moody AFB

Despite the A-10’s short-term legislative reprieve, its long-term future (as well as that of future Hawgsmoke competitions) is still as uncertain as the DOD budget that its fate is ultimately tied to. Yet that remains one of the few uncertainties surrounding the Warthog. The CSAR, FAC-A, CAS, and Aerial Interdiction mission sets that the A-10 has performed remarkably over the past 25 years are certainly not going anywhere. The A-10’s combat record is certainly proof that it is the right tool for the numerous jobs its pilots have trained to perform. The GAU-8 is arguably the most effective forward-firing cannon on any modern aircraft and gives pilots and ground commanders alike the dual benefit of being both an accurate, exceptionally hard-hitting weapon, and producing much less blast or fragmentation damage than bombs or missiles, which greatly reduces the potential for collateral damage. Lieutenant Rosenau sums up the versatility of the GAU-8, telling AC.m “When you look at how we match a weapon to a target, it’s hard to find a target that the gun can’t handle. It’s really hard to find.” Combat experience has proven this, with A-10s taking out everything from tanks to individual IED emplacers to helicopters in flight with the gun. With United States President Barack Obama stepping up American military action against ISIS forces in Iraq, it seems likely that the A-10 hasn’t seen its last battle, and if Hawgsmoke 2014 proved anything, it is that the attack pilots of the United States Air Force are ready for the fight, wherever it may be.