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Photos: Air Force Sends A-10 Warthogs to Escort a Ballistic Missile Sub

A-10
Courtesy USN

Published May 13, 2024 6:26 PM by The Maritime Executive

America's nuclear ballistic missile subs are some of the highest-value maritime assets in the world, and they always have a force-protection escort when they enter and exit a port. Previous experiences with assymetric threats have taught the U.S. Navy to be cautious about drones and small craft. However, the escort task force for the latest departure of "boomer" USS Nebraska (SSBN 739) caught plenty of attention: the U.S. Air Force dispatched a squadron of iconic A-10 Warthogs to fly overwatch as Nebraska exited the Strait of Juan de Fuca. This may be the most high-profile assignment for the much-loved (and unwanted) aircraft class in years, certainly in peacetime. 

The A-10 was designed in the Cold War as a tank hunter to counter the threat of a Soviet ground invasion in Europe. They were built to carry a 30mm cannon and a heavy external weapons payload, at low speed and low altitude. They were designed to survive heavy damage in hopes that they might last through a high-intensity engagement with Soviet air defenses, and that baked-in durability kept them running for decades of low-intensity conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

With the wars in the Middle East winding down, and budget demand for high-end fighter platforms ramping up, the Air Force has been asking Congress to dispose of this dedicated ground-attack platform. Appropriators consistently refuse the request, and the Air Force will have to maintain a fleet of 135 of the aircraft for years to come - and find a new mission for them, outside of contested airspace. 

Courtesy USN

Escorting naval forces in U.S. waters could be one new option. The A-10 has been tested in trials with small craft targets before, and has reportedly functioned as well against speedboats as it does against tanks. With a low stall speed, it can loiter low and close by, staying within range of any potential threat - and ready to bring one cannon and up to 16,000 pounds of ordnance to bear. 

On this trial run, USS Nebraska was accompanied by four A-10s as well as her everyday escort complement, comprised of a U.S. Coast Guard screening force and a converted OSV used by the special operations community. The Navy did not specify whether the A-10s would make a recurring appearance, or whether this was a one-time trial - but judging by online commentary, it was quite an airshow for aviation enthusiasts.