Two planes from Md. unit lead strike

August 06, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Two A-10 attack planes of the Maryland Air National Guard led the NATO air strike yesterday in retaliation for the Bosnian Serbs' seizing of four pieces of heavy armor from a United Nations compound near Sarajevo.

The planes pumped 600 rounds of 30 mm fire into a self-propelled anti-tank gun, about seven miles south of Sarajevo, within the city's 12-mile exclusion zone from which heavy weapons are banned. The pilots, who have not been named, returned safely to their base in Aviano, Italy.

The Pentagon did not officially identify the A-10 unit involved as being from Maryland, and a similar Air Reserve unit that is not from Maryland is based at Aviano. But a senior Pentagon officer said the planes used in the attack on the anti-tank gun belonged to the Maryland National Guard, which has 6 A-10s, and 100 men and women at Aviano.

"Nobody's given me confirmation," said Col. Bruce Tuxill, assistant adjutant general for air with the Maryland National Guard. "If it is us, great."

Colonel Tuxill said the Maryland unit was deployed to Aviano on July 14 and will return to Maryland on Sept. 14. He said the group was flying every day.

"They are very, very busy," he said. "We are trained to do a mission. When we are successful with that mission, it increases our morale."

The A-10s were among 16 allied war planes deployed around Aviano to strike back at the Serbs for entering the weapons compound at Ilidza in the early morning and seizing a similar 76 mm anti-tank gun, a T-55 tank and two armored personnel carriers that were under U.N. control.

The compound was under Ukrainian troop guard, but it failed to stop the Serbs from seizing the weapons they had surrendered to U.N. control after the exclusion zone was imposed in February to end Sarajevo's bombardment.

The Serbs headed north toward Visoko with the hijacked weapons and disappeared. NATO ordered a helicopter to search for the convoy, but it came under ground fire north of Sarajevo and had to withdraw. It sustained no damage.

U.N. and NATO commanders then drew up a series of Serbian targets, including the anti-tank gun south of Sarajevo. Sixteen planes -- four A-10s, four Dutch F-16s, four French Mirages and four British Jaguars -- were ordered into the air.

The weather was stormy, with clouds at 4,000 feet. This prevented the other planes from attacking any targets. But the A-10, known as the "Warthog" because of its ugly outline, can operate at low altitudes and low air speeds. The Maryland pilots are able to fly as low as 1,000 feet.

The rules of engagement yesterday required that both ground controllers and the pilots identify the target and that there was "zero" likelihood of civilian damage or casualties from the strike. This was because the Serbs have previously positioned their armor near churches and hospitals to make air strikes more difficult.

Once these conditions were met, the pilots locked onto the gun, an anti-tank system built by the United States in the 1940s. It was left in Europe after World War II and has been used recently by the Serbs.

"The A-10 is ideally suited for this type of work," said a senior Pentagon officer. "The 600 rounds are going to make that [anti-tank gun] system inoperative."

A damage assessment will not be available until today, but the Maryland pilots reported hitting their target.

The Maryland Air National Guard, Colonel Tuxill noted, was recently awarded the first "outstanding" rating for operational readiness given by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to any unit in the 9th Air Force since 1976. The unit was deployed to Panama during the 1989 Noriega crisis. It was on standby for the 1991 allied invasion of Iraq.

"We are not strangers to operational things," said Colonel Tuxill. He said the A-10 pilots were trained to fire bursts of about 15 bullets -- with the same explosive energy as a 500-pound bomb -- from their cannon, which can actually fire 4,000 rounds a minute. The A-10 is equipped with armor-piercing and explosive shells.

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