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Visiting MacDill for a training exercise, the commander says the iconic jets will be able to survive against more advanced enemies like the Russians or Chinese

An A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft, assigned to the 175th Air National Guard Wing, flies adjacent to a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft during a refueling mission over the Eastern U.S., March 29, 2018. Refueling of the A-10’s showcased rapid global mobility capabilities directly to civic leaders. (Senior Airman Heather Fejerang/U.S Air Force)
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For the past 17 years, the United States has been blasting at enemies with a warplane they’ve been unable to take down.

But with increasingly aggressive China and Russia, an enigmatic regime in North Korea, and an always bellicose Iran, that may not be the case in a future conflict. These potential foes possess sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry.

Standing on the flight line at MacDill Air Force Base, next to an A-10 Thunderbolt II, Air Force Lt. Col. Joshua “Deuce” Waggoner seems unfazed by the future of air combat and his particular plane’s ability to survive it.

“Think of a bad guy, and this aircraft is able to engage it,” said Waggoner, 42, commander of a squadron of Indiana Air National Guard A-10s, half a dozen of which have flown down to MacDill for the flying branch’s equivalent of spring training.

The A-10, known as the Warthog for an iconic nose design surrounding a GAU/8 Avenger 30 mm cannon, first rolled off the assembly line in the late 1970s. Reminiscent of the P-47 Thunderbolt, its propeller-driven predecessor from World War II, it was designed to provide close support for troops under fire and bust tanks.

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The Warthogs proved especially adept at taking out jihadi forces in places like Afghanistan and Iraq when they were called in to provide close air support. But enemies like the Taliban, Haqqani network and Islamic State don’t have anti-aircraft weapons like the Russian S-400 or Chinese JRVG-1 76-mm anti-aircraft cannon. And the recently released National Defense Strategy, an outline of the Pentagon’s view of how to protect the nation, places increasing emphasis on countering the Russians and Chinese.

As a result, the future of the A-10 has been hotly debated, with the Air Force at times looking to mothball the fleet to save money. However, the flying branch is moving ahead with plans to put new wings on the planes and keep them flying.

Waggoner said Warthogs with updated and hardened avionics, working in concert with other U.S. and allied aircraft, will enable the stubby-winged jets to survive future conflicts.

“The idea of us alone and afraid isn’t how the strategy plays out,” Waggoner said.

The plan is to perform missions alongside the venerable F-16s and the new F-35s, among other weapons, providing cover and taking out enemy air defense systems.

“When it is part of the total force concept, it will be just as lethal,” Waggoner said.

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Meanwhile, there’s still work to do against current foes.

Waggoner’s squadron completed a deployment to Afghanistan over the summer. Stationed at Kandahar Air Field, the members flew missions mostly in neighboring Helmand province, one of the areas where the Taliban have proven particularly resilient. The squadron also flew in Nangahar province, where Islamic State’s Afghanistan branch has been causing troubles, as well as against Taliban incursions into Ghazni, Herat and Farah provinces.

“It wasn’t quite as busy as we have seen in the past,” Waggoner said.

Still, there was a lot of schwacking to do with the cannon and an array of bombs and missiles carried under its wings as troops found themselves under fire.

“Your blood pressure increases a little bit,” Waggoner said. “But that’s why we do things like this training exercise.”

Called Guardian Blitz 2, the exercise is a way for the squadron to keep fresh after deployment and perform some of the training they missed while they were overseas.

The hogs soon will be on their way home to the frigid north. But it won’t be long before they’re back, for a larger-scale training exercise with Special Operations Forces at the Avon Park Air Force Range. Called Jaded Thunder, it’s scheduled for February.

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The Pentagon announced no new deaths in ongoing operations, but the Marines last week announced the death of Capt. Jahmar F. Resilard, 28, of Miramar, Fla., the pilot of an F/A-18 Hornet fighter that collided with a KC-130 refueling tanker in the Sea of Japan on Dec. 6. The five crew members of the refueler also were reported killed but their names were not immediately released.

There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 60 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the follow-up, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel; 56 troop deaths and two civilian deaths in support of Operation Inherent Resolve; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; one troop death in support of Operation Joint Guardian, one death classified as other contingency operations in the global war on terrorism; one death in Operation Octave Shield and six deaths in ongoing operations in Africa where, if they have a title, officials will not divulge it.

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© 2018 Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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