PARIS -- U.S. allies are happy to have the A-10 Warthog attack aircraft back in Europe to counter a resurgent Russia, airmen here at the Paris Air Show said.
The Defense Department brought the Cold War-era tank busters stateside in 2013 as part of a consolidation of bases and equipment in Europe. But it sent them back to the continent as part of a theater security package earlier this year -- including countries in the former Soviet bloc -- in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and support for pro-Russian separatists.
The planes have been a welcome sight during training exercises involving NATO forces in the Czech Republic, Poland, Estonia and Romania, among other countries, according to crew members.
"It's pretty amazing because that's what this jet was designed for -- Russian tanks -- so it's pretty wild that we're helping them out for the original cause," Air Force Staff Sgt. Marcus Nugent, a crew member who works on the aircraft's avionics systems, said on Tuesday at the Paris Air Show, held at the historic Le Bourget airfield outside the city.
"They're small countries, they're small forces, so seeing us out there with them," he added. "They love it just as much as we love it -- maybe a little more -- so it's pretty awesome. The way Russia's been acting -- it keeps people at ease on both sides."
Tech. Sgt. Teddy McCollough, an A-10 weapons maintainer with the 355th Air Force Maintenance Squadron, agreed. "They absolutely love our presence there," he said. "You can feel how gracious they are for us being there."
About 300 airmen and 12 A-10s with the 355th Fighter Wing in February departed Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona for Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany as part of a security theater package. The Air Force also deployed 12 F-15Es in March in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve.
The units have traveled across Europe taking part in a wide range of exercises and working with NATO partners. U.S Air Forces in Europe Commander Gen. Frank Gorenc said Monday at the Paris Air Show that the additional airmen and aircraft have helped reassure our NATO allies in the face of Russian aggression.
A-10 pilots Capts. Joseph Morrin and Paul Wruck with the 354th Fighter Squadron said they have benefited from the time training with joint terminal air controllers from across NATO on calling in airstrikes.
"We get to do close air support training with our allies and get to see how they do business and show them how we do business, and all of us together as an overall CAS team get better," Morrin said.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James this week at the show said the U.S. may also deploy a squadron of F-22 Raptor fighter jets to Europe in response to Russia's actions.
"I would say the biggest threat on my mind is what's happening with Russia and the activities of Russia, and indeed that's a big part of why I'm here in Europe and having those discussions," she said. "It's extremely worrisome on what's going on in the Ukraine. We've seen the type of warfare, which someone dubbed it hybrid warfare, which is somewhat new. So I would put that at the top of my list."
The A-10 is known as the pre-eminent close air support aircraft in the U.S. fleet with its low, slow-flying gunship's snub-nose packed with a seven-barrel GAU-8/A Avenger Gatling gun that fires 30mm rounds designed to shred the armor on tanks, combat vehicles and other targets.
"I love this aircraft," he said. "I love the gun system. It's reliable. It has few hiccups. When it does, it's usually minor. It holds a lot of rounds, 1,150 rounds -- that's a lot. It's a beast." He added, "When they go and fly day-to-day missions, they usually do shoot, do some target practice. I just make sure it's clean, lubed up and ready to go."
The Air Force has proposed retiring its fleet of almost 300 Warthogs by 2019 to save an estimated $4.2 billion a year and free up maintainers for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a stealthy multi-role fighter jet and the Pentagon's most expensive acquisition program.
Congress rejected the service's request to begin the process of divesting the A-10 this year and approved $337 million in funding to keep them in the inventory. While lawmakers did allow the Air Force to move up to three dozen of the planes to back-up status, they blocked the service from sending any to the bone yard in Arizona.
Morrin said his unit tries not to get caught up in the debate and the politics surrounding the issue.
"We let them do the debating and we keep flying," he said.
Morrin explained that the A-10 pilot community is still not sure what the potential retirement of the A-10 would mean for their careers. A-10 pilots have not been told what aircraft they would fly next, but there is hope that many would fly the F-35, Morrin said.
"We might have to go back to flight training for a while. We just really don't know," Morrin said. "They haven't told us because it's not official yet. It's sort of the expectation though that since the F-35 is the future that we'd go there and then take our CAS knowledge to the table and make sure that community is well versed in it."
As the Air Force pushes to retire its fleet of A-10 attack aircraft, Boeing Co. doesn't want the planes to waste away in the Arizona bone yard -- it wants to sell them abroad.
The company has begun discussions with the service about potentially selling the Cold War-era gunship to U.S. allies, according to Chris Raymond, a vice president at the company.
"We need to see what they want to do first, and then we'd certainly want to try to help market some of those around the world, if they choose to want to do that," he said.
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