The Day We Took Out 23 Tanks

In Operation Desert Storm, the A-10 Warthog was primitive, but it got the job done.

aircraft above desert
“Karl” in flight over Afghanistan.

The clouds were black that day. Smoke from oil-well fires lit by Iraqi forces and smoldering tanks filled the air with haze. It was difficult to pick out targets by sight, but we pressed in lower and closer, confident that our aircraft—the Fairchild Republic A-10A Thunderbolt II—could take a hit and still get us home.

Operation Desert Storm was the first time the “Warthog” had flown in combat. By the time it ended, the Warthog would be credited with destroying more than 900 tanks, 2,000 military vehicles, and 1,200 artillery pieces. That the A-10 remains in service 29 years later is a testament to the platform’s reliability and effectiveness.

In Desert Storm, 39 fixed-wing aircraft and five helicopters were shot down by Iraqi air defenses. Six Warthogs were lost and two of their pilots killed. My flight commander, U.S. Air Force Captain Dale Storr, was shot down over Kuwait on February 2; only when he was released on March 6, after the war, did we learn he had survived. We understood the risks of our job.

I took off before dawn on February 25, 1991, the second day of the ground war. I was a first lieutenant then, flying as wingman for Captain Eric Solomonson, who went by the call sign “Fish.” Mine is “Karl.”

Our first mission took us to the corner where Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait meet to intercept a tank convoy a night flight had spotted. Fish and I arrived just as the sun was coming up. Most of the tanks had pulled off the road. Where tracks ended, there was a tank. Their hot engines glowed bright against the cool morning sand, making them easy pickings for our infrared-guided Maverick missiles. We quickly nailed six tanks, then started blasting away with our 30mm cannon and scored two more kills. I used a grease pencil on the inside of my canopy to record any burning tanks, a sure sign of a “K”—for catastrophic kill.

Fish and I were both adept with the A-10’s seven-barrel 30mm Gatling gun. The thing shook the airplane when you pulled the trigger. You could smell the spent casings even with the oxygen mask on. The sound is muffled with all the gear we wear, but you still hear it. The high rate of fire and typical range mean the rounds hit just before or about the time you release the trigger. For that reason, the A-10 has been upgraded in the decades since with a computed sight.

Marks and his A-10
Marks and his A-10 in 2017. Three decades after Desert Storm gave the close-air-support classic its combat debut, approximately 280 Warthogs remain in service with the Air Force. The design is expected to remain in use until the late 2030s.

We didn’t have that in Desert Storm. Being a good shot still mattered in 1991. We had to correct for all sorts of factors—dive angle, airspeed, sight depression—using “Kentucky windage,” or eyeball targeting. We used steep dive angles and close-range passes to get good hits with the Gatling gun, which back then tended to move around during a burst. Still, we rarely missed.

Once we were out of ammo, we flew to a forward operating location where our aircraft were rearmed and refueled. We congratulated ourselves for a great day’s work.

Before we knew it, we were ordered back to our jets to fly near Kuwait City. Back then, the A-10’s navigation system was not GPS-based and accurate only within about a mile. We plotted target grids on plastic-covered maps with grease pencils and used binoculars to spot targets from high altitudes. We didn’t even have night-vision goggles.

Today, the A-10’s engines are pretty much the same, and the basic airframe hasn’t changed. But internally, it’s almost a new airplane. An automatic countermeasures system detects and responds to incoming threats. The navigation system has moving-map color displays. We can drop numerous guided weapons on multiple targets on a single pass. Along with that computed sight, the cannon has a stabilization system to hold it steady while firing—no more Kentucky windage. Today we see flight data in our eyepiece, instantly cue the targeting pod sensor, generate grids for a guided weapon, and locate threats, ground forces, and our wingman. Today’s Warthogs are much more lethal than their ancestors.

We did well with what we had. Arriving over Kuwait City, we saw that there too the sky was black from burning oil wells. The Marine Forward Air Controller, flying in a two-seat F/A-18, put down smoke rockets to mark Iraqi tanks in the path of advancing Marines. We went back up and scored eight more tanks; six with Mavericks and two with the 30mm cannon. Sixteen kills since breakfast.

As soon as we landed at King Khalid Military City Airport, we were asked if we wanted to fly again. We’d already been in the cockpit for eight hours. We did what I think most A-10 pilots would.

Again rearmed and refueled, we were ordered back to Kuwait City to support Marines taking heavy fire. We quickly set seven more tanks ablaze. Returning to base, we called in the amount of ordnance remaining: zero. We had cleaned off our airplanes three missions in a row.

Of the 23 tanks we knocked out that day, I scored 12. We think we heavily damaged 10 more with 30mm hits, but we couldn’t claim them as kills since we didn’t see them burning. How many Iraqis did we kill? We’ll never know. It was tough to see individual soldiers. Sometimes, we’d see small black shapes moving away from a truck we had just strafed. If a tank was running, we assumed it was manned. I felt a little sorry for the conscripted troops. I felt no such pity for the Republican Guard, deeply committed to Saddam Hussein’s regime. The equation was easy: I wanted our troops to meet as little resistance as possible. Later, seeing news photos of the wreckage and burnt bodies in the sand, I realized what our weapons had done, but it didn’t really change anything. We did what we had to do that day in the desert.

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This story is a selection from the September issue of Air & Space magazine

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