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Maryland Air National Guard deploying to fight ISIS

Maryland Air National Guard deploying to fight ISIS; mission could help extend the life of the A-10

From the cockpit of her A-10, Capt. Katherine Conrad watched as Kurdish fighters in eastern Iraq battled to retake territory that had been overrun by the self-declared Islamic State.

By the end of the three-hour mission last fall, Conrad and another pilot had battered targets on the ground with more than a half-dozen bombs and missiles and raked the enemy twice with the imposing nose-mounted cannons that are the A-10's signature weapon.

"To be able to provide that sort of oversight and protection for the Kurds was very fulfilling," Conrad said.

Now Conrad — call sign "Slam" — is set to return to the Middle East this fall as the Maryland National Guard makes its first major deployment in Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State.

The Obama administration has declined to put regular U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria, but has been engaged for 18 months in a bombing campaign aimed at helping Kurdish and Iraqi forces help push the terror group back.

That is the fight the 104th Fighter Squadron is preparing to join. But for the Marylanders, the deployment could serve a second purpose: making the case to extend the life of the A-10, their last aircraft.

With the versatile F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in development — the military has been testing it at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Southern Maryland — the Air Force has been trying for years to retire the A-10. But when the Pentagon rolled out its budget this month, leaders said the fight against the Islamic State had proved the older aircraft's enduring worth.

Capt. Michael Meyer, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said A-10s have flown more than 3,500 sorties in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.

The A-10 "has been devastating to ISIL from the air," Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said.

Maryland Guard officials, citing security concerns, declined to say how many troops would deploy, when they would leave or where they would be based. Col. Charles Kohler, a Guard spokesman, said such deployments typically last six months.

It could be one of the squadron's last deployments.

The Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, nicknamed the Warthog, flies low and slow. It was designed during the Cold War and put into service in 1977 for the conventional fight: large armies squaring off on a fixed battlefield. Its job was to halt the advance of Soviet tanks.

That fight never came. Instead, the military has used the A-10 to provide close-air support for troops on the ground — as in Conrad's mission last fall, when she flew with the Michigan Air National Guard.

Air Force leaders have argued that the aircraft is used only infrequently. Documents released last week show that the service plans to begin retiring A-10 squadrons in 2018.

The 21 Maryland National Guard aircraft are scheduled to go in 2020. They are to be replaced with C-130 transport planes.

The Air Force wants the stealthy Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II to take on the job of close-air support. But A-10 supporters say that with F-35 pilots charged with performing several types of missions, and without a plane designed specifically to hit targets on the ground, troops will suffer.

Russell Carpenter, a former Air Force joint terminal attack controller, said the combination of dedicated pilots and an armored, low-flying plane will not be replaced easily.

"A lot of aircraft can influence an Army ground fight, but they can't change it," he said. "An A-10 is a game-changer."

Maryland Air National Guard Maj. Paul "Monty" Kanning has been flying A-10s for a decade and a half. He said the best way to advocate for the aircraft is to continue showing its value at the tactical level.

That way, he said, "every time they say, 'You know what? It's time to get rid of the A-10,' I've got a four-star [general] pounding on the table, going 'I can't get rid of them because they're critical to my fight that I'm in right now.'"

While the F-35 packs technology that was inconceivable when the A-10 was designed, Kanning said, upgrades to the A-10 have brought significant improvements.

The planes now have almost entirely new internal systems and targeting technology that gives pilots a detailed look at the battlefield. Pilots have special monocles that overlay digital information on top of the real world, and the Air Force is tinkering with helmets that will include speaker systems to let pilots hear the battle around them.

The result, Kanning said, is "it's much more lethal."

The close relationship between A-10 pilots and troops on the ground means that some of the plane's biggest fans are soldiers and Marines, who credit it with saving their lives.

Master Gunnery Sgt. Richard Wells recalled a 2008 patrol in a remote area of northwestern Afghanistan that nearly ended in disaster.

"I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you right now if it weren't for the pilots," the Marine said.

The small group of Special Operations forces was caught in a Taliban ambush.

Wells and his team pushed into a compound. A rocket-propelled grenade started a fire, Wells' captain was badly wounded and another member of the team was dazed by a shot to the helmet.

The U.S. troops and the Taliban fighters were fighting nearly muzzle-to-muzzle. The Marines' translator could hear the enemy commander exhorting his fighters to kill the Americans.

The Marines had called for air support, but bad weather meant that the closest jets could not fly low enough to help without running the risk of hurting the Americans.

The only other option was a pair of A-10s more than 300 miles away, according to an account of the battle released by the Air Force.

The two pilots, Maj. Jeremiah "Bull" Parvin and Capt. Aaron Cavasos, battled the weather and made it to the Marines with only moments to spare.

"We were a couple of minutes from being overrun," Wells said.

The two aircraft swept in with exterior lights illuminated, as on commercial airliners. That attracted the attention of the Taliban fighters, giving Wells and the other Marines a chance to break out.

The A-10s took turns strafing the Taliban with shells the size of an adult's forearm.

"It's probably the scariest sound I've ever heard in my life," Wells said. "The impacts of the rounds were less than 25 meters from us."

The aircraft made several passes as the Marines limped 800 yards to safety.

Wells had not trained with A-10s. He was struck by how effectively the pilots came to their aid.

"These guys came in like it was a ballet," he said. "It was almost like it was rehearsed."

Parvin told an Air Force Times reporter that the mission had seemed like just another day. But after lobbying from Wells and the other Marines, Parvin and Cavasos were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross last year.

Conrad made her first solo flight as a teenager, before she knew how to drive a car.

Flying over Iraq last September, she watched the Kurdish fighters' 30-minute push to capture a town in detail. She could look ahead to spot threats that might be coming their way and keep the battlefield clear of danger.

In the course of the six-month deployment with the 107th Fighter Squadron of the Michigan Air National Guard, Conrad flew every third day, spending an average of seven hours in the air. (She set a unit record with an 8.7-hour sortie.)

A-10s were in heavy use, Conrad said, because they were valued for search and rescue. She said Air Force planners knew they could always rely on A-10 pilots to stick around just a bit longer.

"We were quite proud of that reliability," she said.

The tour took Conrad all around Iraq and Syria, including the sites of some of the fiercest fighting such as Ramadi, Fallujah and the Baiji oil refinery. Most days she would take off in her jet without a predetermined target, head to a hot spot and wait for orders from the ground.

"It was a little bit of a pickup game every day," she said.

The assignments came from joint terminal attack controllers, or JTACs.

Those specialized troops sometimes serve right up on the front line with other U.S. units. But with the limited U.S. role on the ground in Iraq, Conrad said, instructions would often reach her through several steps.

When she was supporting Kurdish fighters, for example, soldiers would use cellphones to call their commanders, who would call up a JTAC. The JTAC would then pass the message and details about a target up to the planes.

"It's this literal game of telephone," she said.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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