BAGRAM, Afghanistan -- Air Force Capt. Brian Savage had a less-than-dignified reaction when he first flew an A-10 fighter jet called a Warthog.
"I felt like I was driving a dump truck," said Savage, 28, of the 354th Fighter Squadron from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, Ariz. But the slow- and low-flying Warthog is maligned no more, as it has become the mainstay of the U.S. ground war in Afghanistan.
The stubby-nosed jet is funny-looking when compared to the other arrows in the U.S. Air Force's quiver -- sleek, pointy-nosed jets like the F-16 or F-15.
But the jet has gone from being an attack aircraft designed to bust tanks and aid ground troops engaged in battle to being the patrolling and pinpoint-attacking fighter plane of the U.S. war.
Eight A-10s are based at Bagram, headquarters for the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, flying sorties day and night over the arid terrain.
"It's not the beauty plane on the ramp but it works just fine for us," said Capt. Rob MacGregor, 30, who's flown 23 sorties over Afghanistan since arriving six weeks ago.
The jets fly close air support for regular and special forces soldiers combing Afghanistan for weapons caches and remnants of al-Qaida or the ousted Taliban regime.
Because the few tanks and heavy armored equipment used by the Taliban were quickly destroyed by the U.S. forces last year, the A-10s now patrol the skies looking for rocket launch sites or mortar posts.
"They've become the patrolmen on the beat," said Col. Gregory Marston, 46, who commands the 455th Expeditionary Operations Group overseeing the A-10s and most airfield operations at Bagram.
Just last week, A-10s responding to a call from U.S. special forces near the eastern Afghan town of Asadabad dropped two 500-pound bombs and fired hundreds of 30mm explosive rounds at a suspected enemy target. It's unknown whether there were any casualties from the attack.
The A-10s, which cost about $9 million each, are designed to loiter just hundreds of feet over the battlefield at a relatively slow speed of 200 mph -- more than 300 mph slower that their British-built counterparts, the Harrier jet.
To compensate for the relative lack of speed, designers clad the pilot's cockpit in a 900-pound "titanium bathtub" able to withstand most anti-aircraft fire. Self-sealing fuel tanks are designed to not explode if shot and the jets will fly if the hydraulic systems are damaged, or if a wing is shot off.
"It's more vulnerable, but it's built to take a lot," Savage said.
Each plane carries an arsenal that includes heat-seeking missiles, 500- to 2,000-pound bombs, laser-guided bombs and a Volkswagen-sized Gatling cannon that can fire nearly 4,000 rounds a minute. If tanks are the target, the jets fires ammunition tipped with depleted uranium.
In the 1980s, military planners intended the A-10s to fly low, slow missions to counter divisions of Soviet tanks stationed in eastern Europe.
In Afghanistan, however, the jets operate at higher altitudes, out of range of surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft fire. They maintain a vigil for combat troops, now that operations have turned from large-scale bombing to pinpoint raids. No A-10s have been shot down and few have even been damaged.
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