WASHINGTON — America’s beloved A-10 Thunderbolt II ―the “Warthog” ― may be headed back to Afghanistan, Military Times has learned.
A senior Afghan defense official told Military Times that the Afghan government wants the aircraft to return. However, discussions to bring the A-10 to Afghanistan are in early stages, and no decision to bring the aircraft back into theater has been made.
“The discussions of what forces we move to Afghanistan or drawdown from Iraq and Syria are all ongoing,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Lance Bunch, director of U.S. air operations in Afghanistan, told reporters at the Pentagon. “We have not made any decisions at this time to move A-10s, that I know of.”
As operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria wind down, other air assets may be flexed to Afghanistan. In recent months, six additional F-16s and a KC-135 Stratotanker have bolstered U.S. air assets in the country. There are currently 18 F-16s in country, according to a Pentagon official.
A-10s have been vital to U.S. operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Deployed to Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, the 74th Fighter Squadron has dealt punishing blows to ISIS fighters in support of U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.
But those operations are beginning to wane after the October liberation of Raqqa, ISIS’ self-proclaimed capital.
Those assets may now be needed in Afghanistan where the U.S. has launched an air campaign targeting Taliban commanders and their revenue streams under authorities granted as part of the Trump administration’s new South Asia strategy.
Roughly 25 Taliban narcotics labs in northern Helmand province have been destroyed since mid-November, denying the Taliban nearly $16 million in revenue, according to Bunch.
“It’s not over, in fact it’s just begun,” Bunch said about the new air campaign targeting Taliban financing operations.
As part of new strategy, more U.S. forces, may find themselves in harm’s way as American advisers begin to embed with Afghan forces at a more tactical level.
The Army’s new 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade is expected to deploy troops this March. The new unit specializes in training and advising partner nation forces. Its deployment means more U.S. troops will be in the field with Afghan forces, outside the protection afforded by larger U.S. military bases.
With that, U.S. commanders will need to employ more combat enablers to assist advisers on the ground, which may translate into more combat aircraft to provide close-air support for troops downrange.
“So these advisers will operate in teams,” Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told reporters at a Pentagon briefing in late November. “We will move these teams to those units that are conducting offensive operations, and then those teams will be backed up by U.S. combat enablers, not only for the protection of our own force but for the support of the Afghans as well.”
The A-10 has a storied history in Afghanistan, and is idolized by troops who have witnessed the aircraft in action against the Taliban. Its 30mm cannon has delivered thousands of deadly gun runs against Taliban militants and saved the lives of countless American and coalition troops.
Its relatively low cost to operate, and its ability to maneuver at low speeds and altitude, have made the Warthog a prominent asset in America’s low-tech counterinsurgency conflicts.
The A-10 has been in service for more than 40 years and may remain in service for the foreseeable future. This year’s defense policy bill authorizes funding to upgrade the aircraft’s wings, but the appropriations bill, which would provide the money for the project, is still being negotiated on Capitol Hill.
“I happen to be kind-of a fan of the A-10 myself,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson told lawmakers in December.