At least 12 US A-10 attack planes landed in the Estonian Ämari Air Base on September 21-22 to participate in the joint exercises of Estonian and U.S. air forces to be held till November 13 in the Estonian airspace. The event takes place in the framework of a wide program known under the name Atlantic Resolve. The training event increases the military presence in all NATO's eastern member states. This is already the third joint exercise of Estonia and US this year.
A-10 Thunderbolt II, more commonly known by its nicknames «Warthog» or «Hog», is U.S. Air Force’s primary low-altitude close air support aircraft.
The A-10 Thunderbolt II has great maneuverability at low air speeds and altitude. It is a highly accurate and survivable weapons-delivery platform. The aircraft can loiter near battle areas for extended periods of time and operate in low ceiling and visibility conditions. The wide combat radius and short takeoff and landing capability permit operations in and out of locations near front lines. A-10 can operate at night time. The aircraft can employ a wide variety of conventional munitions, including general purpose bombs, cluster bomb units, laser guided bombs, joint direct attack munitions or JDAM, wind corrected munitions dispenser or WCMD, AGM-65 Maverick and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, rockets, illumination flares, and the GAU-8/A 30mm cannon, capable of firing 3,900 rounds per minute to defeat a wide variety of targets including tanks.
With the speed of 450 kts (Mach 0,75) and range of around 2600 miles it can reach the second largest Russian city of St. Petersburg in a short period of time (roughly 5 minutes) taking off from an airstrip in Estonia.
A-10 is a nuclear-capable aircraft. Critics say its deployment in Estonia constitutes a violation of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The five nuclear powers- the parties to the Treaty – agreed not to transfer «nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices» and «not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce» a non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS) to acquire nuclear weapons (Article I).
In April, 10 Thunderbolts deployed to Romania to assist training Soviet-built MiG-21 aircraft of the Romanian air force. Recent deployments have seen the U.S. military train with local forces in the Baltic and Balkan states, as well as Germany, Poland and Ukraine.
Actually, any tactical weapon deployed in the vicinity of Russian borders does the same job as strategic delivery means to stoke Moscow’s concern. For instance, Hans Kristensen, the Director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, says, «With the new bombs the boundaries blur between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons».
There is another special feature to note. Ever since the first Gulf War the U.S. military has increasingly used radioactive depleted uranium munitions. Against Iraq in 1991 they proved very effective at penetrating enemy armor. More recently in the Afghan campaign they were used extensively for destroying underground facilities and caves. For instance, A-10 Warthog with its GAU-8/A cannons extensively used depleted uranium ammunition (the 30 mm PGU-14/B API Armor-Piercing Incendiary munitions) in Gulf War I and in Kosovo.
The deployment takes place against certain background. In June the US announced the decision to store battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and other heavy weapons for as many as 5,000 American troops in several Baltic and Eastern European countries, American and allied officials say. Four F-22 fifth generation aircraft were deployed to Europe for training purposes this August. They are back to the States at present but could deploy to the old continent any time.
Gen. Frank Gorenc, Commander, U.S. Air Forces in Europe, told Breaking Defense that it’s a good practice for a wartime tactic: fly aircraft, ground crews, and support equipment into a bare-bones air base, conduct a quick operation, then move out before Russian bombers or missiles retaliate. Gorenc wants to further expand the number of NATO base the Russians have to worry about through an initiative called «Rapid-X», which would move combat aircraft in and out of unimproved airfields with minimal facilities. The goal, he said, is «to generate combat power just at the right time, just in the right place. «To meet the new threat,» said Gorenc, «it’s pretty clear we’re going to have go back and start exercising some of the same stuff we used to do in the Cold War».
These are bad news about escalating tensions in Europe. It may also happen in Syria with Russian and NATO aircraft striking the Islamic State without coordination to increase the danger of accident. But there is a silver lining. According to the New York Times, US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are set to hold talks in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting. The leaders will meet on Monday, 28 September, authorities from both the countries have confirmed. It may give a new lease on life to military-to-military dialogue to address the burning issues, alleviate tensions and prevent accidents and misunderstanding.