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1st Lt. Stephen Bowen, with the 81st Fighter Squadron out of Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, shows a new targeting pod attached to the wing of an A-10 Tuesday. By the time the unit deploys early next year, commanders hope all 18 of the unit's A-10 aircraft will be equipped with the new technology.

1st Lt. Stephen Bowen, with the 81st Fighter Squadron out of Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, shows a new targeting pod attached to the wing of an A-10 Tuesday. By the time the unit deploys early next year, commanders hope all 18 of the unit's A-10 aircraft will be equipped with the new technology. (Charlie Reed / S&S)

SPANGDAHLEM, Germany – Tracking and pursuing enemy forces on the ground should be easier for A-10 pilots with the 81st Fighter Squadron when they go downrange early next year.

By the time they deploy, leaders hope the unit’s 18 aircraft will be outfitted with new targeting systems. Three already have been installed with six more on the way.

The technology allows pilots to deploy laser-guided munitions, pursue moving targets at night with infrared imaging and stabilize points on the ground while maneuvering. The information is routed from a targeting pod attached under the wing to a monitor in the one-man cockpit. Ground forces also have access to the images coming from the plane.

“It’s like a super-powered binocular,” said 1st Lt. Stephen Bowen, who will be deploying for the first time with the unit. It is still unknown where the squadron will be sent.

But Bowen and the other pilots are learning to use the new systems with caution.

It’s apparently easy to get caught up watching the tracking screen, jokingly referred to as the “drool cup.” So pilots are learning to strike a balance between using the targeting system and their tried-and-true technique of simply looking out the window.

Watching the monitor too much can be dangerous because “it’s like looking through a soda straw,” Bowen said. “It’s a very limited field of vision … In some cases, it’s better not to use it at all.”

The unit just got back to Spangdahlem after a seven-week training mission at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla. There they worked with the new targeting technology and participated in two close-air support exercises with the U.S. Army, Navy and Marines, and British forces.

The scenarios allowed the unit the rare opportunity “to integrate with all the different assets,” said Maj. Mark Lambertsen, the unit’s second in command.

Built to operate near the front lines, the A-10 can fly at low air speeds and altitude. It can survive direct hits from armor-piercing and high explosive projectiles up to 23 mm. Pilots are protected by titanium armor that also protects parts of the flight-control system.

Close-air support missions are expected to be the unit’s primary focus downrange, Lambertsen said.

“The toughest part is keeping track of all the moving parts to make sure everyone’s de-conflicted and to maintain situational awareness,” he said.

The key to close-air support is “finding the fine line between trying to support them with air power and to do things fast without messing up,” Lambertsen said. “We can’t afford any mistakes.”

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