The Air Force's unappreciated close air support jet, the A-10 Warthog, may be best known for plinking tanks with missiles and bombs and shredding enemy positions with its GAU-8 Avenger 30mm cannon, but one of its most important and dangerous missions is Combat Search and Rescue, otherwise known as CSAR.
The application of the A-10 when it comes to Combat Search And Rescue, particularly plucking downed pilots just out of the enemy's grasp, finds its roots in 'Sandy' role, made famous by the hardy A-1 Skyraider during Vietnam. The modern form of the mission as it applies to the A-10 is multi-fold. First, they work to escort and provide a contingency assistant force for rescue helicopters infiltrating the enemy's territory. Then, once on scene, they can 'soften' and reconnoiter the landing zone before the rescue package arrives. Once the helicopters are on scene, they protect the entire rescue package from an enemy that is usually hell-bent on capturing the same pilot that CSAR forces are risking so much to save.
The whole affair is usually a race against time. Since the enemy usually knows you are coming and in what area you will most likely appear, every enemy asset available is on alert and trying to bring more aircraft down and to find the pilot themselves before you get there. The Warthog, with its ability to drop down to treetop height and stay there, while rapidly engaging targets, makes it ideally suited for this mission.
For all those involved, the chances for flying into a trap are quite high, as is the expectation of great volumes of enemy fire. As a result, even drawing fire away from friendly forces and their relatively fragile rescue helicopters is not an uncommon demand of the 'Sandy' mission. The 'Hog's incredible ability to absorb enemy fire makes it ideal for such perilous circumstances.
Although dropping guided munitions from medium altitude can be done by anything from an F-16 to a B-1 bomber, how exactly the USAF expects to fulfill the CSAR escort, or 'Sandy' role if they succeed with retiring the A-10 is unclear. Leaving HH-60 Pave Hawks and CV-22 Ospreys without a low-level hardened attack aircraft seems astonishingly short sighted and just one more reason why the Air Force's rationale for retiring a cheap and proven asset like the A-10 for the equivalent savings of 1% of its yearly budget is just absurd.
Hopefully the 'Sandy' call sign will remain with the A-10 for decades to come, something that I am sure the PJs and rescue helicopter pilots will greatly appreciate, not to mention combat aircraft pilots that could suddenly find themselves alone and running for their lives behind enemy lines. Which includes those who will eventually fly the F-35.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com