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  • Writer's pictureFrank Visser

2022 Home of the fighting O’s


Like several other U.S. Air Force units, the Maryland Air National Guard A-10s of the 104th Fighter Squadron are back in Europe to support NATO and showing deterrence in the Eastern part of Europe. Frank Visser visited the unit in Maryland and spoke with the commanding officer just prior to the Swift Response/DEFENDER Europe 22 exercise.


For over two years Lt. Col. Tim “Deuce” Fitzpatrick has been the commanding officer of the 104th Fighter Squadron (FS), based at Warfield Air National Guard Base (ANGB), just north of Baltimore, which is part of the 175th Wing. Lt. Col. Fitzpatrick joined the Air Force in 2,000 and graduated at the 14th Flying Training Wing at Columbus AFB, Mississippi, flying the Cessna T-37 and Northrop T-38. After graduation he went on flying the A-10 in Osan Korea, Moody and Nellis AFB, before his assignment to the Maryland Air National Guard. The 104th FS is a standard U.S.Air Force squadron with around 20 A-10C “Thunderbolt II” aircraft in its inventory and nearly 30 pilots. The 175th Wing, which has approximately 1,400 Airmen, also has offensive and defensive cyber capabilities within the 175th Cyberspace Operation Group.

A-10 updates

The 104th FS became the first Air National Guard unit within the U.S. Air Force to operate the Fairchild Republic A-10A “Thunderbolt II”. Since 1979, the squadron has been operating the “Warthog” until this day. During the eighties and nineties, the USAF carried out a number of upgrades, as after 20 years of service the first signs of aging appeared.

A number of A-10 wings showed metal fatigue and so it was decided to replace a large number of wings, which started in 2003. Instead of renewing the old wings, it was decided to build nearly 200 new ones.

The biggest upgrade occurred in 2005, when over 350 A-10A and OA-10s (which were used in the Forward Air Control role) were modernised and were given the designation A-10C. Just two years later the 104th FS received its first C-model in 2006. Lt. Col. Fitzpatrick explained: ”The transition between the A-model and C-model was pretty huge, with the major focus on digitizing a lot of the capabilities on the aircraft.” All aircraft received improved Electronic Counter Measurements and made the use of Smart Bomb Targeting possible. Besides, an improved fire control system was installed. In the cockpit the main adjustment were the two multifunction displays, a moving map display, a digitizing stores management systems and a 'Hand-on-Throttle-and-Stick combination'.

Lt. Col. Fitzpatrick: ”Weapons employment became more straight forward with the C-model, it increased the time that the pilot could focus on the target, instead of doing inside tasks. Therefor the C-model was really revolutionary.” New software updates become available every year or two, which increases the pilot awareness in the cockpit. Lt. Col. Fitzpatrick: “The most recent update was added to plot friendly forces and artillery on the moving map display and it added us to organise more multiple weapons drops from the aircraft.”



Tasks

Although the aircraft was upgraded several times during the last three decades, the tasks have never changed. Lt. Col. Fitzpatrick explains: ”Our main missions are Close Air Support (CAS), Forward Air Controlling (FAC) and Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) and CAS is what we are specialised in.” During the air-to-ground mission’s weapons are employed in close proximity to friendly forces.

It requires detailed integration to ensure that the ground commander’s effects are being met without making casualties on our side. For this type of mission, the A-10C can draw on a vast arsenal of weapons. Besides its impressive 30mm General Electric GAU-8 Avenger gatling gun, the A-10 can carry a wide variety of weapons in multiple configurations on its eleven external storage points, such as GBU-12 Laser Guided Bomb, GBU-31 and 38 JDAM, CBU-103 and 105 Cluster Bombs and AGM-65 “Mavericks”.

For a FAC mission, the A-10 is used as a tactical command and control capacity, where the capability of the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) on the ground is extended. By calling in air strikes, the A-10 is used for air space deconfliction. The JTAC and the A-10 pilots work closely together to advise for weaponry and tactics. Lt. Col. Fitzpatrick: “During the war against terrorism the FAC role hasn’t been that appropriate. It is a more relevant mission for us to employ in a more force against force type of conflict.” The last task for the 104th FS is CSAR. The focus with CSAR is helping recovering the downed aircrew. We focus on escorting the CSAR helicopters and giving air protections during this type of mission to ensure a safe passage back to friendly lines. Lt. Col. Fitzpatrick: “The A-10 is still an incredibly relevant platform. We fight as a team and regardless of the threat or environment, the A-10 still has a flexibility to operate and we bring an offensive capability that is hard to match by more modern airplanes.“


Deployment readiness The 104th FS has been deployed several times in the past. In the war on terrorism A-10s were deployed for six months to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, as the 104thExpeditionary Fighter Squadron. Lt. Col. Fitzpatrick: “We exist to deploy and so we maintain a high level of readiness, so we can deploy on pretty short order. We therefore have our yearly training cycle that we build around having a deploying capability whenever it is required.”

Equipped with a Targeting pod, Maverick missile a and belly tank, this 104th FS A-10C is ready to depart from Martin State Airport.

Before a deployment the training can be adjusted to the kind of theatre, but normally the training is not drastically changed before a deployment. Lessons learned from deployments are shared with other units. The US Air Force has a well-developed lesson learned program so units can use this when they are deploying. Lt. Col. Fitzpatrick: “We don’t live in a vacuum. We talk a lot with others like the 107th FS of the Michigan Air National Guard, which has the same role and operates the same type like us.” All new A-10 pilots follow their pilot training at Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona, where they leave as fully operational pilots. Within the squadron experienced pilots train the newcomers. For training purposes, the 104th FS has several ranges to its disposal near Warfield ANGB. Exercises like Red Flag, in which the squadron participated in 2021, helps the 104th FS to keep their readiness.


Eastern Europe

Only two weeks after the interview ten Maryland Air National Guard A-10Cs, assigned to the 104th FS arrived at Keflavik Airport, Iceland, on May 5, 2022. To support the U.S. Army’s Swift Response exercise four aircraft transited to Andoya Airbase in the northern part of Norway and the six others went to North Macedonia on May 7th, after stopping through Ramstein Air Base in Germany. This annual U.S. Army Europe and Africa-led multinational training exercise took place from May 2-20 throughout Eastern Europe, including the Artic, Baltic Sea and the Balkan Peninsula regions.

A member of the 104th FS ground crew gives the okay signal, to indicate that the loading process of the 30mm General Electric GAU-8 Avenger gatling gun is completed.

Approximately 9,000 members from 17 Allied and partner nations participated in the exercise, including some 2,700 US soldiers and airmen. The goal was to strengthen solidarity, collective resolve, and the ability to adapt in a dynamic warfighting environment. In addition to flying from Norway and North Macedonia, the A-10 aircraft were also scheduled to deploy to forward operating locations in the Baltics and Poland to execute their Agile Combat Employment capabilities. The purpose of Agile Combat Employment is to establishes a proactive and reactive operational manoeuvre schedule to increase survivability while generating combat power across the entire integrated deterrence continuum.

The 104th FS A-10s are regular visitors of the Baltic Region, as the unit has a military partnership with Estonia since 1993 under the National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program. Members of the fighter squadron visit Estonia every couple of years to participate in exercises and cooperate with their armed forces. The current exercises are aimed at supporting the NATO countries, who have sent military aircraft to different Eastern countries close to Russia. Besides, the “Warthog” presence in the Baltics will act as a symbolic show of force and will give a much needed moral boost to their Estonian partners.


Goals

Previously to this exercise, Lt. Col. Fitzpatrick elaborated on his goals: “My goals as a commanding officer are to constantly improve the unit, to increase the training quality and make them as ready as can be.”

Mission completed for this retro painted A-10C. It marks the 100 years anniversary of the Maryland ANG.

COVID-19 was a challenge and it mainly limited the ability to travel, but the 104th FS was able to maintain their focus. Lt. Col. Fitzpatrick: “I am proud of how adoptable the team has been. We had some challenges like funding, travel restrictions and COVID-19. It is important to constantly shift focus so we get what we need. One thing has to be said, the A-10C is still a formidable aircraft with enormous firepower. Despite its age, the A-10 has shown its worth in CAS, FAC and CSAR missions over the last four decades. And while replacement of this type has been a matter of debate in recent years, the future for the “Warthog” looks bright.”


A full report on the 104th Fighter Squadron was published in Air Forces Monthly, issue July 2022.

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