A-10s Train With Air-Launched Decoys Alongside B-1B Bombers

Using A-10s to launch flocks of ADM-160 decoys is one way these jets could be players in a future high-end conflict.

byJoseph Trevithick| PUBLISHED Nov 8, 2022 7:03 PM
A-10s Train With Air-Launched Decoys Alongside B-1B Bombers
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An A-10C Warthog ground attack jet loaded with air-launched decoys sitting next to a B-1B bomber at Andersen Air Force Base on Guam may be a window into future U.S. Air Force operations in the Pacific. Integrating the ADM-160 Miniature Air-Launched Decoy, or MALD, onto the A-10C has been a major component of broader efforts to ensure the aging Warthogs will be able to contribute in high-end conflicts, such as a potential fight against China. The A-10C in this instance is part of a group of Warthogs that deployed to the region last month as part of an exercise intended to demonstrate still-evolving expeditionary and distributed concepts of operations that could be utilized in a major contingency, as you can read about more in The War Zone's initial reporting here.

The public affairs office for the Air Force's 28th Bomb Wing, based at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, posted pictures of one of its B-1Bs next to the A-10C loaded with DATM-160s, training versions of the ADM-160, on the U.S. military's Defense Visual Information Distribution Service (DVIDS) website earlier today. At least a dozen A-10Cs from the 23rd Wing at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia have been flying from Andersen on Guam, as well as Roman Tmetuchl International Airport in the island nation of Palau, along with other supporting aircraft as part of Exercise Iron Thunder. A contingent of B-1Bs from the 28th Bomb Wing has been on Guam since October as part of a separate Bomber Task Force (BTF) deployment.

An A-10C Warthog from the 74th Fighter Squadron, part of the 23rd Wing, on Guam on November 4 loaded with four DATM-160 training versions of the ADM-160 Miniature Air-Launched Decoy. USAF

"These aircraft were brought to the Indo-Pacific region in conjunction with a Dynamic Force Employment operation, which enables training and increases Pacific Air Forces’ ability to remain strategically predictable, but operationally unpredictable in an ever-evolving competitive and contested environment," a caption to one of the pictures says.

It is unclear to what extent the 28th's B-1Bs and the 23rd's A-10Cs, with or without MALDs, have been directly training together. The War Zone has reached out to the Air Force for more information.

Air Force personnel load DATM-160s onto an A-10C Warthog at Andersen Air Force Base on November 4. A B-1B bomber is seen in the background. USAF

The Air Force has pursued the integration of the MALD onto the A-10C as a way to help improve the survivability of Warthogs in higher-threat environments, as well as expand the ways that these aircraft can contribute in future major conflicts. You can read more about these efforts in this past War Zone feature.

The different variants of the ADM-160 are all essentially small cruise missiles that contain an electronic warfare package rather than a warhead. Depending on the exact version, these decoys can jam hostile radars or fool them into thinking that groups of 'ghost' planes or missiles are heading at them from different directions. You can find out more about the entire MALD family here.

"No one wants to spend billions of dollars on the A-10," Air Force Maj. Mason “Pinch” Vincent, an A-10 instructor pilot with the USAF Weapons School’s 66th Weapons Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, explained to The War Zone in an interview earlier this year. "But if we can find ways to add capability and make platforms more survivable and more effective, then we are going to do this the best we can."

"We didn’t want to look for anything that was brand new or was going to need people to spend money, time, or effort on something that was specific to the A-10, and we didn’t want to look at anything that had a long time horizon, because [we] don’t know what the future of the A-10 is going to look like," he continued. Vincent made clear the priory was finding "something cheap [and] easily integrated" that could have an "immediate impact."

“MALD was the easy button. It requires no software integration with the A-10, we can just hang it up, drop it, and it works," he added. "To bring it to the fight you just need lots of stations — which is what the A-10 has — we’re not limited by weight because it’s a lightweight weapon and we’ve got 10 pylons that we can hang MALD on."

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The A-10C seen in the recently released photos was loaded with four DATM-160s, as well as two training versions of the AGM-65K Maverick air-to-surface missile, a pair of similarly inert AIM-9L/M Sidewinder heat-seeking short-range air-to-air missiles, and a LITENING targeting pod. However, the Air Force expects a single Warthog to be able to carry up to 16 MALDs at a time, the same number that can be loaded at once on a B-52 bomber, one of the service's current main launch platforms for these decoys. An F-16C/D Viper fighter jet, another one of the service's current options for employing ADM-160s, can carry just four.

A picture from prior testing related to the integration of the ADM-160 MALD onto the A-10C showing two of the decoys loaded onto a single triple ejector rack, or TER. An A-10 should be able to carry up to 16 MALDs at a time in part by utilizing TERs. Michigan Air National Guard

In a future conflict, the Air Force could employ a force of A-10Cs to launch volleys of MALDs from one or more directions to help clear routes or otherwise shield other aircraft, such as B-1B bombers. On top of that, the Warthog was designed from the outset to be well-suited for small-footprint operations from remote and austere locations, which could enable them to be relatively quickly staged at forward bases closer to the target area to conduct those decoy-launching missions. Just recently, as part of Exercise Iron Thunder, the 23rd Wing demonstrated its ability to deploy A-10Cs to a large established base thousands of miles from their home station, Andersen on Guam, and then quickly relocate a portion of its force to a tertiary site hundreds of miles away at Roman Tmetuchl International Airport in Palau.

Six of the 23rd Wing's A-10Cs fly over Palau's Roman Tmetuchl International Airport on November 8 as part of Exercise Iron Thunder. USAF

Air-launched decoys like MALD and other aerial electronic warfare systems only look set to become more and more important in future conflicts, in general. This is especially true against potential near-peer adversaries like China, which continues to develop and field increasingly more capable crewed and uncrewed combat aircraft, as well as advanced integrated air defense capabilities.

When it comes to the Air Force's iconic A-10s, just how much of a role they will have in any future high-end conflict in the Pacific, or anywhere else, still very much remains to be seen. The service has made no secret of the fact that it views these jets as extraneous to its future tactical aviation plans and Congress appears to be increasingly willing to allow the retirement of at least a portion of the remaining 281 Warthogs in this fiscal year, which could mark the beginning of a process to get rid of the type for good.

That being said, a significant portion of the remaining A-10C fleet is likely to remain in service for years to come. This all also comes as U.S. military officials are now warning on a somewhat regular basis about the potential for a major conflagration in the Pacific with China before the end of the decade, with potential flashpoints including Taiwan and hotly contested areas of the South China Sea.

The Warthog community clearly remains intent on exploring ways to make sure it can contribute to any such future contingency, including by launching flocks of MALDs to help to clear the way for other aircraft, even as the A-10C now looks to be finally entering the twilight of its career.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com

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