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Military Aerospace Technology

A-10 Makeover On The Horizon

The A-10 Thunderbolt II, aka the Warthog, has long been admired for its effectiveness in achieving its mission of close air support of ground forces. A comprehensive upgrade package for the aircraft is expected to move it from the analog to digital age.

By Michael Burnett

The A-10 Thunderbolt II, aka the Warthog, has long been admired for its effectiveness in achieving its mission of close air support of ground forces. But as U.S. Air Force (USAF) pilots will see in the next year or so, a comprehensive upgrade package is about to make the attack jet an integrated part of the total force, thereby boosting its effectiveness even more.

Major Drew English, the USAF program manager for A-10C Precision Engagement, told Military Aerospace Technology that the Precision Engagement Suite 3 overhaul of the A-10 represented an unparalleled opportunity to bring added strength to the Air Force.

“It’s the largest upgrade the A-10 has ever had by far,” English declared. “The general gist of it is to bring the A-10 from being an analog jet to a digital jet.”

English oversees Precision Engagement from the 422 Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base (AFB) near Las Vegas, Nev. One of the most exciting changes coming to the A-10 through Precision Engagement is a fully integrated targeting pod that brings the Lockheed Martin Sniper XR Targeting Pod along with a Northrop Grumman LITENING Extended Range Pod, English said.

“What the A-10’s are flying right now in theater is kind of a patchwork,” English noted. “The A-10 never had a program that really integrated targeting pod, smart weapons, digital stores management, all of that kind of stuff together with the navigation system. This ties all of that stuff together.”

The addition of the Digital Stores Management System (DSMS) provides the capability to field smart weapons, such as the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and the Wind Corrected Munitions Dispenser (WCMD). These capabilities have required power upgrades to the jet as well. The A-10C, as the improved jet is designated, will have two new electric buses to power all of the electronics upgrades. Six of its 11 pylons will have MIL-STD-1760 connections for handling the smart munitions.

As far as precision control goes, A-10 pilots will experience the power of Hands-On Throttle and Stick (HOTAS), adapted from the F-16 Falcon and F-15E Eagle.

“HOTAS allows me to use my fingers and hands on a bunch of different buttons and never take my hands off the stick and throttle for tactical flying. The A-10 has never had that full integration,” English described.

But perhaps the most exciting aspect of the Precision Engagement Suite 3 enhancement is providing a networking data link to the A-10C to provide situational awareness and integration with the rest of the armed forces assets in theater.

“I would say the biggest one we have coming impact wise is the data link. It will shape our tactics and it bring us into a new era, probably as much as night vision goggles did when we got those in the mid-’90s,” English said.

English anticipates fielding the A-10C data link sometime around March 2007 as part of the first increment of Precision Engagement implementation. The addition of the data link includes fully integrating the latest Raytheon-built Situational Awareness Data Link (SADL) radio into the Precision Engagement hardware and software suite.

After that time, the second increment of Precision Engagement begins. That involves the installation of smart munitions and increased targeting pod and weapons delivery capabilities, English summarized.

Currently, the Weapons School at Nellis AFB started the year with three test jets modified; five more were scheduled to arrive last June. Modifications to Weapons School jets should be complete by October 2006, English said, and then operational units start to send their jets in for modification. The first two operational units on the schedule are the Maryland Air National Guard at Martin State Airport and the Michigan Air National Guard at Battle Creek. Those units are currently scheduled to be completed in March 2007.

Squadrons will release their jets for modification at Hill AFB in Utah, English explained. The jets undergo Precision Engagement Suite 3 upgrades and return as A-10C models after about 90 days per jet.

The entire force of 356 jets will undergo modification, English added.

Prime Contractor

Lockheed Martin Systems Integration, based in Owego, N.Y., leads the prime contractor team on the A-10 including Precision Engagement Suite 3 modifications. Lockheed Martin’s teammates for the project include BAE Systems, Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and Northrop Grumman.

Roger Il Grande, Lockheed Martin’s A-10 program director, provided MAT with some additional details on how some of the new components of the A-10 will work.

For example, he explained, the Digital Stores Management System enables pilots to better manage targeting and employment of on-board weapons and sensors. The Digital Stores Management System serves as the backbone for integrating applications within Precision Engagement, Il Grande said. Systems such as video from the targeting pod, weapons status reports and the data link rely upon the Digital Stores Management System to work together.

“The Digital Stores Management System is an enabler that helps the integration of all of these systems so that the information is displayed to the pilot in a way that makes sense of what he is seeing on his displays,” Il Grande said.

Among the applications available to the pilot is a digital moving map—visible through two new 5x5 multi-function color displays—that pinpoints locations for available targeting information. Visual information comes from the targeting pod to the map through the capabilities of the Digital Stores Management System. The digital moving map will show the pilot his position at all times on a map of different selectable scales, thereby reducing navigational workload and vastly improving situational awareness.

These capabilities come through both software and hardware upgrades, Il Grande emphasized. Indeed, in the title Precision Engagement Suite 3, the Precision Engagement part refers to hardware portions while the Suite 3 part refers to software.

Despite the fact that the program has these two aspects, thinking of the two separately is not practical, said Il Grande.

“When I think of the hardware versus the software, I could describe the different hardware elements and the different software elements but I really couldn’t describe those two independent of each other,” he said.

The digital moving map, for example, is a software product operating on a new processor that also provides weapons processing. So the weapons teams also work with the processor.

“This is an example where we are introducing new processor capability,” Il Grande explained. “But working very closely on that hardware activity are different elements of digital map. We also have different operational flight programs that reside in that computer.”

Other hardware changes are more subtle but critically important. Lockheed Martin will implement a “significant wiring change” from the cockpit of the A-10 through the wings. Prior iterations of the Warthog had no displays, so Lockheed Martin has to redesign the instrument panel to accommodate the inclusion of multi-function displays. Also, the Digital Stores Management System requires the replacement of switches and other hardware. Meanwhile, a new upfront controller enables the A-10 pilot to do more data input with his head up and looking outside as opposed to his head down inside the cockpit.

“I can look at the different hardware elements in terms of physically what they are and describe them. But when I think of the development programs, I don’t think of them as hardware or software, I think of them as a system upgrade,” Il Grande commented. “I would say that it is the integration of all of those things, not any one in particular, is really what is happening for the A-10 under Precision Engagement. We are not strapping any one of these systems on as a stovepipe.”

More on Timelines

Lockheed Martin Systems Integration, based in Owego, N.Y., received the Precision Engagement contract in early 2001. The contract team has successfully completed the development phase of the contract as well as the development and integration and test phases.

The USAF began flight-testing the Precision Engagement capabilities in January 2005, and in mid-2006 had as many as 13 A-10 jets in flight test at Eglin AFB, Fla., and Nellis AFB, Nev. At press time, the Lockheed team was continuing to support the USAF’s flight test program.

“We have released to flight test the functions that make the targeting pod go, that make the Digital Stores Management System work, and that support the new pilot/vehicle interface. We began releasing smart weapons and situational awareness data link functions to flight test in mid-October,” Il Grande said. Flight-testing will result in reports that point to any additional changes that may be required.

The USAF at Hill AFB rolled out the first production A-10C aircraft on August 18. Lockheed Martin packages the Precision Engagement hardware and software upgrades for each aircraft into a kit of more than 1,600 parts. The kits are shipped to Hill AFB, in Ogden, Utah, where installation by the depot takes about 90 days per aircraft. Lockheed Martin is currently under contract for more than 170 kits of Precision Engagement production.

While Il Grande anticipates fielding Precision Engagement-modified A-10s in September 2007, fielding suitability decisions are likely to occur in the first and second quarters of calendar year 2007. Around the same time, USAF and Lockheed Martin should begin implementation of the second increment of Precision Engagement, which includes smart weapons capability and any additional changes required from testing. Completion of the first increment includes the addition of the targeting pod, Digital Stores Management System, digital moving map, and the situational awareness data link.

“Situational awareness is what I think of when I think of Precision Engagement,” Il Grande noted. “The primary mission of this aircraft is close air support. The most important aspect of close air support is situational awareness, providing the pilot with the information about what is happening in the overall situation. Precision Engagement is bringing a vast increase in situational awareness capability to the pilot. It is going to limit fratricide, which is a top priority. It is going to enable the A-10 weapons system to be a much more flexible asset in terms of its capabilities to combatant commanders.”

Il Grande stressed that Lockheed Martin engaged the input of USAF pilots early through the use of its A-10 Systems Integration Lab (SIL) in Owego.

“With the magnitude of the change brought about by Precision Engagement, we saw early on that it was absolutely essential to build the SIL,” he said. “The SIL is comprised of a very significant testing capability to check out all of the operational flight programs, but as importantly, it was used to develop the requirements with the pilots. We have a full Precision Engagement cockpit in the SIL. The pilots have been involved all along with helping us develop requirements, especially as they pertained to the pilot/vehicle interface.”