Every two years the USAF A-10 community gathers to hold a weapons competition. The exercise is called Hawgsmoke and this year it was held at Davis Monthan AFB in Arizona. Rob Edgcumbe was there for GAR to see the A-10 in its natural environment.
The biennial weapons competition, Hawgsmoke, is hosted by the unit that won the overall competition the previous time. That meant Davis Monthan was to be the host again. However, this year’s Hawgsmoke generated more than the usual amount of attention.
The ongoing debate about budget cuts within the US Air Force and the possibility that the A-10 could be on the chopping block raised the prospect that this Hawgsmoke might be the last. Talk of retiring the A-10 has been ongoing for decades now with it having survived all previous efforts by the Air Force / Department of Defense hierarchies to withdraw it. The current debate has got closer than ever before, so interest was high.
Bringing together the A-10 units is quite a logistical challenge. Thirteen units attended the exercise in 2014 and many brought their own aircraft with them, or at least they did if they were based in the continental US. Others came from further afield and made use of ‘borrowed’ aircraft to avoid the need for logistically difficult and expensive ferry flights.
The focus of the exercise was the Barry M Goldwater Range Complex west of Tucson AZ. This is a huge range that provides a wide variety of training options for the units that are based in the area. It is not particularly close to Tucson so the transit to and from the range takes some time, particularly given the lower speeds at which the A-10s operate. However, it provides a great selection of targets for the aircraft to work.
Out on the gunnery range at Range 2, we were able to witness the four-ship formations from the various competing units undertaking a series of gunnery exercises. They started out at higher level carrying out steep dives onto the target. The aircraft could be seen holding at altitude before rolling in on the target. Given the distance away, the first clue that they had fired was the stream of smoke from the GAU-8 cannon in the nose of the jet. This was followed a short while later by the eruption of dust from the target as it was hit. Shortly afterwards, the sound of the shells hitting the target reached us and lastly (and quite confusingly) the buzz-saw sound of the cannon firing made it to us.
A series of runs on the high-angle targets was followed by some level strafing of the targets nearest us. The aircraft ran in at low level, 75’-100’, and fired at a banner target to one side of us. Here the sound of the gun firing was far more impressive and the target hits were measured by the range’s acoustic measuring system. The aircraft then pulled up and broke hard over the range tower to await their turn in the pattern, with all four aircraft taking a run at the target.
The banners in use were not always up to the task and one run resulted in the banner being shot away completely. A wait until there was a pause in the range slots was required before the crew could go out and rig a new banner which they managed in short order ahead of the next unit checking in to the range.
Gunnery was one part of the competition. Three categories were ultimately scored and the results were as follows:
Overall Top range teams
Overall Top Maverick teams
Top Tactical Team
The overall winner of the competition was the 47FS, which is a USAF Reserve Squadron under the control of the 924th Fighter Group and based at Davis Monthan AFB. Therefore, if the A-10 survives and Hawgsmoke goes ahead in 2016, it will be hosted in Arizona once more.
Below is some footage of the aircraft undertaking the gunnery exercises:
The A-10 is a hugely popular aircraft and it is very impressive to see it in operation up-close. There will be many people hoping that this is not the last time the Hawgsmoke exercise is undertaken and that the A-10 continues to provide its unique combination of payload, endurance, manoeuvrability and ruggedness in support of ground forces for many years to come.