Deadly A-10 warplanes armed with the latest precision-bombing technology are thundering over Baltimore at an accelerating pace as National Guard pilots from Maryland and other states train here to deploy early next year with the Obama administration's expected military buildup in Afghanistan.
Officers said the planes will fly there in stages next winter for a combat tour of three to six months. Joining them will be the Maryland Air Guard's C-130J airlift cargo planes and crews.
The A-10 attack jets of Maryland's Air National Guard were the first in the nation to be fitted with the new digital-linked targeting and fire-control systems.
Maryland Guard pilots, who used the system in combat in Iraq, are now teaching their counterparts from Arkansas and Michigan on the upgraded model of the A-10 "Warthog."
Lacking specific deployment orders, the Maryland Guard does not yet know how many aircraft and pilots, air crews, technicians and others will go.
But tens of thousands more U.S. ground troops are likely to be sent into combat, and that means "more airplanes are needed," said Lt. Col. Dan Marino, commander of the Maryland Guard's 175th Wing operations group.
By this time next year, Maryland's heavily armed A-10s could be escorting the unarmed cargo planes on air drops of ammunition to troops pinned down by enemy fire, Marino said.
"When they have A-10s with them, all of a sudden nobody wants to act up," he said.
The upgraded technology enables the A-10s to use precision munitions such as a 500-pound, satellite-guided bomb that can level a building while leaving adjacent structures unharmed, pilots say. Flying low and slow in support of ground troops, the A-10s usually are guided to a target by a tactical air controller on the ground, sometimes a difficult task in the heat and smoke of battle. The new system passes target coordinates directly to pilots.
"That's all you need to drop it in the bucket," Marino said.
President Barack Obama has promised to send reinforcements into what military and intelligence officers describe as a worsening situation in Afghanistan, which is beset by government corruption, a booming drug trade and a violent Islamist insurgency that has spread across the deserts and mountains of southern, central and eastern Afghanistan.
Since the United States attacked Afghanistan in 2001, weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, 626 Americans have been killed in action there and 2,627 wounded, according to the most recent Defense Department accounting.
The White House is weighing a request for at least three more combat brigades that Gen. David McKiernan, commander of U.S. and allied forces, says he needs.
The three combat brigades, with an aviation brigade of attack and transport helicopters and military police, special forces, combat engineers, forward surgical hospitals and other support personnel, could add up to 30,000 or more, roughly double the number of U.S. military personnel now assigned to Afghanistan, U.S. officials said.
The A-10s' mission will be to prowl above main roads to protect convoys and assist American and allied troops under attack.
Afghanistan will be familiar ground to Maryland's A-10 squadron, which did a tour there in 2003.
"We know our customer - the 18-year-old kid on the ground getting shot at," said Marino, a lanky 46-year-old from Bel Air with a raffish mustache and 23 years of experience in the A-10 cockpit.
When they arrive over troops in combat, he said, A-10 pilots can often hear bursts of rifle and machine gunfire over the radio.
Built to fly close to the battlefield and to survive hits by ground fire, the A-10s carry bombs, rockets and a 30 mm Gatling gun that can shoot 3,900 2-pound slugs a minute from its seven revolving barrels.
"You can be hiding behind a concrete block wall and that won't save you," Marino said.
When friendly troops are locked in combat, the A-10s work closely with a joint tactical air controller and employ the Gatling gun, which is more precise than a bomb.
"You want to continue to put on the pressure," said Marino, "and not break off contact until the ground guys say, 'OK, we got it.' "
For the squadron's pilots, most of whom are airline pilots in civilian life, flying will become more purposeful as the deployment approaches.
Last week, 28 A-10s sat on the apron at Warfield Air National Guard Base in Essex. Some, loaded with inert 500-pound practice bombs, were trundling to the head of the runway at Martin State Airport, preparing to fly in pairs 15 minutes northeast to the range at Fort Indiantown Gap, in Pennsylvania.
Others were returning to practice "hot" 40-minute turnarounds to refuel, rearm and receive new intelligence briefs and missions.
Pilots also are practicing air refueling and spend Sundays on "target academics," studying weapons, munitions and intelligence reports on Afghanistan.
The A-10 squadron will participate in a combat search-and-rescue exercise next month at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas and in an extended ground-attack exercise this spring in Florida.
In late summer, the pace will pick up, culminating in a predeployment exercise in Florida in November.
The practice and the A-10's precision guidance systems will be useful in Afghanistan, where civilian casualties from airstrikes have ignited protests from the public and from President Hamid Karzai.
"Civilian casualties are doing us enormous harm in Afghanistan," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week.
Gates and others have noted that the Taliban and other insurgents hide among the civilian population. "When we go ahead and attack, we play right into their hands," he said.
In an effort to limit civilian casualties, the Air Force is increasingly turning to precision-guided weapons such as the 500-pound Joint Direct Attack Munition, which the new technology enables the A-10 to carry.
When the Maryland Guard A-10s took the new system with them to Iraq, they were immediately given a mission against insurgents trying to lure soldiers into a house that had been booby-trapped. Armed with the precise coordinates, a pair of A-10s hit the house with two JDAMs, collapsing it neatly without damaging a mosque next door, a gun-camera tape of the attack shows.
Using patience - taking the time to sort out the situation on the ground - is a key skill in employing the A-10 in combat, Marino said.
"You can lay a lot of waste on the ground," he said, "but that's not our job. Our job is to protect those civilians. I'm a human being and a father, and I do not want to take a life, especially of children, and live with that the rest of my life."
As Maryland's A-10s practiced last week, the war continued in Afghanistan. According to an Air Force combat report, a pair of A-10s - not identified by home state - attacked insurgents using rocket-propelled grenades, automatic weapons and sniper fire against allied forces near Namgalam, along the Pakistani border east of Kabul.
According to a daily Air Force combat report, precision strikes by the A-10s "effectively ended the battle."