An A-10 engine enhancement gets green light from USAF
By Robert Wall, Washington
Under orders from U.S. Air Force leaders to map an extensive upgrade for the A-10 attack aircraft, service planners are devising ways to finance those steps without having to cut the inventory of ground-attack aircraft.
USAF officials during the past year have realized they will continue to operate the sturdy A-10 beyond 2020 and, therefore, will need to upgrade it to maintain combat capability. The Warthog is expected to remain in service until at least 2028.
EARLIER THIS YEAR, Air Force Secretary James G. Roche said some A-10s would be retired to free up money to upgrade the rest of the fleet. But Air Combat Command (ACC) representatives are trying to avoid the quid pro quo, largely because the 356-aircraft inventory would fall below long-term force structure needs, suggested Lt. Col. Robert Brown, ACC's director of operations, tactics and weapons for the A-10.
An alternative solution would shuffle maintenance to free needed money, says Lt. Col. Marcus Quint, an Air National Guard adviser to ACC on A-10 issues. All required maintenance would be performed, but some actions that were scheduled for convenience to be done concurrent with A-10 upgrades would be delayed until they are due, he added. Given the annual appropriations cycle, the move could generate enough money to spend on upgrades. The first A-10s are supposed to reach the end of their service life around 2017.
The enhancements would be above the already funded Precision Engagement activities, which update A-10s avionics and represent "the most important and largest combat improvement in [the A-10's] history," says Lt. Col. Robert Silva, chief of A-10 requirements at ACC. It adds a hands-on-throttle-and-stick feature and integrates targeting pods. The Litening pod currently in use was fielded quickly and uses merely a Maverick missile interface that provides only limited functionality; eventually A-10s would also use the Lockheed Martin Sniper pod.
The aircraft also will be able to deliver GPS-guided weapons such as Joint Direct Attack Munitions; the 250-lb.-class Small-Diameter Bomb will likely follow. Furthermore, Precision Engagement includes two color multifunction displays, a digital stores management system and an increased power supply. The enhancements should be completed in 2009.
THE FIRST INCREMENT of the next round of upgrades--formally called Precision Engagement Plus, but also referred to as Platinum Pig, Superhog and Silver Sow--is slated to be funded in the Fiscal 2006 budget being drafted now. General Electric will overhaul TF34-100A engines with a new fan and upgraded internal components that can withstand higher operating temperatures.
The TF34-100Bs would allow A-10s to carry 5,000 lb. more payload on a hot day and deliver a 5,000-ft. ceiling increase for operations above 20,000 ft. It would also slash by 30% the time it takes to climb to 20,000 ft. from 10,000 ft., and reduce pilot exposure to surface threats, notes Silva. Aerial refueling operations would improve because the A-10 would fly faster and higher. The development program should be complete around 2008, with installations to run over 4-6 years.
NOT FUNDED, but a candidate for Precision Engagement Plus, is the purchase of more targeting pods to outfit at least every second aircraft. Silva also suggested that pilots would benefit from having "blue force" identifications displayed in a helmet-mounted cueing system, which would be coupled with the targeting pod to ease combat identification and curtail incidents of fratricide. USAF also wants more training systems to overcome shortages in the A-10 community. The unfunded items will probably not receive funding until at least 2008.
Another high-interest item is improved protection against infrared-guided missiles, both missile warning and countermeasures gear. A-10 planners are drawn to the Tactical Directed Infrared Countermeasures (Tadircm) system, a podded, laser-based countermeasures device the Navy is developing. ACC wants to avoid using expendables because they require a large logistics infrastructure. Raytheon and the Air National Guard have been in talks about using the company's Comet pod, which dispenses pyrophoric material. Quint described Comet as a potential near-term option but not the long-term solution.
IN THE MEANTIME, USAF is mulling interim upgrades such as adding communications to connect A-10s to ground troops. Eventually, the A-10 is supposed to receive the Joint Tactical Radio System, the Pentagon's new software programmable radio. But planners don't want to wait that long. A bridge solution may be a so-called smart color multifunction display that provides the processing to implement the Situational Awareness Datalink connection between pilots and ground terminal area controllers. Another option is an electronic keyboard, which some USAF officials favor because they could retain the equipment and put it to other use when Precision Engagement Plus is completed, while the smart multifunction display would merely be replaced.
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