In the crosshairs of this A-10 pilot: the Islamic State
The Department of Defense daily releases a list of U.S. and coalition airstrikes conducted in the previous 24 hours against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) forces across war-torn Iraq and Syria.
Periodically, a news outlet will use the strike data to weigh the effort by the United States and allies in trying to use air power alone, plus training of indigenous forces, to destroy radical Muslims spreading violence and fear.
Air National Guard Col. Michael Stohler is one of the pilots battering ISIL, or what Stohler prefers to call “Daesh” forces, a less respectful acronym also favored by the Iraqi government and coalition partners.
Stohler not only flies an A-10 Warthog ground-attack, close-air aircraft but he commands in theater their reactivated 332d Air Expeditionary Group, a descendent of the legendary Red Tails of 332nd Fighter Group from World War II. He agreed to be interviewed, and named, to broaden understanding of the purpose and challenges of air campaign Operation Inherent Resolve.
One surprising fact is how long A-10 pilots must fly to complete a mission. Sorties usually aren’t shorter than five hours but can be longer than nine, requiring two to three mid-air refuelings.
“Imagine getting in your car and driving for nine-and-a half hours, never to get up to eat or to do anything,” says Stohler. “It’s long. It’s hard on you. The equipment we wear starts wearing on you after a while. Not to mention some of the flights can be very intense. So it’s quite physically demanding, much more so than I anticipated it to be.”
Length of sortie depends on distance to target areas and the mission once there. Besides actual flight time, pilots spend an hour to 90 minutes in planes on the tarmac, going through pre-flight and post-flight routines including arming, or disarming, of the aircraft.
All U.S. military in the AEG are Air National Guard on six-month deployment. Pace of operations has been very intense, says Stohler, with planes flying around the clock. That puts a lot of strain on pilots, maintainers and base infrastructure, which also supports coalition aircraft and crews.
This is Stohler’s ninth deployment to the region as an Air National Guard fighter pilot, and his second flying A-10s. Earlier he flew F-16s. He has more than 3,800 flight hours in two aircraft, almost 600 hours in combat.
Last fall, he says, “I was doing my standard civilian job, flying a little at the Guard and watching the news” when what he saw told him “I needed to get back over here and make a difference.” He calls Islamic State “the most barbaric organization on the planet right now.”
His timing to volunteer for another deployment, at age 48 after 29 years’ service, resulted in his being selected to stand up and command the 332nd AEG. Before he was a fighter pilot, Stohler was a staff sergeant and aircraft maintenance specialist working on F-4 Phantoms jets.
The weapons load on A-10s is typical of U.S. fighter aircraft to include laser-guided bombs, satellite-guided bombs and missiles. But A-10s are armored and have a 30 mm rotary cannon, making it especially fearsome against ground forces.
“We are very aware of that,” says Stohler. “The noise it makes when the gun fires is very intimidating as well. It would be intimidating too if an F-15 Strike Eagle or an F-16 was pointing at you. But the gun really does scare people and that’s nice to know.”
It’s also a good weapon too for reducing collateral damage, a priority for coalition aircraft. The cannon, though intimidating, can be the most minimal ordnance available to limit destruction to identifiable Islamic State forces.
A-10s pilots are trained to find a target, seek verification and do on-the-fly targeting and strike. While that sounds like a solo operation, Stohler says “the coalition flying up there is enormous and we work as a team.”
Targets can be spotted by A-10s or other aircraft, Predator drones, satellites or by “someone with binoculars on the ground,” he says. Almost all targets get vetted up to higher command to determine validity. “As you can imagine this is complex,” Stohler says.
Various factors dictate which platform is used to strike based on intelligence, available resources and other factors. Even if an Islamic State target is verified, the decision might be to delay attack until the situation develops. Some A-10 fly in direct support of Iraqi or other ground forces fighting Islamic State. On other missions A-10s “are just told to go look at something and, sure enough, we find bad guys there.”
The most challenging moment “is the weapon employment phase of the flight,” says Stohler. “Our number one focus is to deliver the ordnance on target, on the first pass, while minimizing collateral damage. This takes a great deal of skill that our pilots train to daily back home.”
“I tell our guys this is like trying to drop bombs on bad guys in your hometown. Your goal is not to hurt anyone else, or destroy anything that you don’t have to destroy. It’s a constant challenge to do that and we do it very well.”
But while collateral damage is key” it might not be “a showstopper,” says Stohler. “Clearly if the target we need to hit is significant we will employ on it wherever it is -- if we have the approval.”
A-10s can and have attacked targets in Syria but primarily fly over Iraq. It’s become a less target rich environment than several months ago, Stohler concedes. “There typically are targets out there to find and destroy, but there’s a lot of things that have to line up for us to do that.”
A-10 engages targets at 275 and 400 knots (316 to 460 miles per hour). From November through March 21, Warthogs of the 332nd AEG conducted more than 190 strike missions and employed 10,600 weapons, about eight to 10 percent of the overall air campaign. The AEG doesn’t track enemy casualties.
Islamic State earlier this year burned a caged Jordanian pilot to death and posted the video on line. Stohler won’t detail on how coalition pilots downed by fire or perhaps an engine mishap are to be recovered. But there are dedicated rescue forces “adequate for what we need.” Some A-10 pilots are fully qualified to act as a rescue mission commander. “So we’re now well covered [to] prevent something that like happening in the future,” he says.
Stohler has flown about 30 sorties this tour. He won’t say if A-10s routinely are struck by ground fire.
“I can tell you we know there’s threat there. A lot of people have handguns and things to shoot at aircraft,” he says. He hasn’t experienced a harrowing situation himself “so I can’t really go Hollywood on you.” But pilots who “have been in some tough spots performed exceptionally well.”
That goes back to training conducted stateside, he adds.
“Anything you get into, if you’re trained properly, you’re going to be very capable … That sets us up for success in any situation…whether it’s day or night, [heavy] weather or no weather, or close proximity of forces.
“All those things, and making sure you get it right before you hit the pickle button, are extremely challenging … But our pilots do a very good job.”
The air campaign is being run by a vast coalition, Stohler emphasizes. It is succeeding, in his view, because it is reducing enemy strength as well as maneuverability and command and control capabilities.
Camaraderie among coalition pilots is strong. Compared with past deployments to the region, he says, “the stakes are a little higher we all think. It’s a threat the world is watching,” worrying about, “and it’s picking up everywhere. You know we’ve got to get it right and want to do it right.”
“The world is behind us and against these barbaric people…It’s not any one entity of aircraft or team that’s doing it. It’s just a total change from what I’ve seen in many years of flying in this region.”