Although the heavy bombers and the fighters often gain most attention, ground attack aircraft arguably had a bigger impact on the course of many conflicts, from the dramatic impact of the Stuka in 1939-40 to the devastating role of the A-10 in the Gulf War. This book looks at how the two US air services – the USAAF/ USAF and the US Navy – approached the attack role, and what impact that had on the aircraft they have purchased over the last century.
‘Light Attack’ is somewhat difficult to define. For much of the period covered here the answer is single engine attack aircraft, but that changes with the twin engine A-10. This covers dedicated attack aircraft and also the fighter bombers that dominated the role for much of the Second World War.
The balance of the book is perhaps somewhat distorted by the author’s own experiences with the A-7, which he has chosen to make the focus of a larger case study. Of the twelve chapters five cover that single aircraft! These chapters do cover a wider range of the issues associated with aircraft development – political and technical issues, the problems of introducing a new aircraft, how those aircraft evolve over time etc. Although this is an interesting topic, I would have liked a little less on this, and rather more on the attack mission during the Second World War, which gets subsumed in two chapters covering the Army and Navy during the period 1920-1960. However we do benefit from the author’s experiences, getting a real insiders view of the sort of debates that surrounded the development of this aircraft.
One thing that clearly emerges is that for much of this period the USAF really wasn’t interested in the close support role, even though it was clearly one it’s most significant roles. It was forced to take the A-7 and later the A-10, and repeated attempted to get rid of its A-10s, even after they proved themselves in combat in Iraq! There appear to be a number of reasons for this. To be truly effective close support aircraft need to work closely with the ground troops, and even come under army control, and this was something the independent air force didn’t want to do. During the long battle for an independent Air Force there was a desire to find uniquely ‘air’ missions, and as in Britain long range strategic bombing was chosen. The fighter role came a poor second, and the attack mission a long way behind it! The main reason the Air Force eventually agreed to take the A-7 was that there was a risk the Army would develop its own close air support force if they didn’t.
In contrast the Navy never seems to have had the same problem. From the start it saw its aircraft as having two key roles – fleet defence and naval attack – and the sort of light attack aircraft being discussed here were at the heart of that attack role. Ironically the Navy has continued to plan and equip itself for that attack role, despite not having faced an opponent with a significant Navy since 1945! Instead its carrier attack aircraft have been used for ground attack missions in Korea and Vietnam and wars since then.
Even now there seems to be a clash between the Air Force’s desire for high speed high tech aircraft (the F-35) and the need for lower cost, slower, more heavily armoured and armed aircraft that can linger over the battlefield, providing close air support for a prolonged period. The F-35’s smart weapons certainly allow it to provide accurate close air support, but in shorter bursts than the older A-10s, which the USAF has been forced to keep.
This is a useful examination of one of the key roles of any air force, and the one that has the most direct impact on the battlefield.
1 – The Mission of Attack in World War I
2 – Army Air Force Attack Aircraft, 1920-1960
3 – Naval Light Attack Aircraft, 1920-1960
4 – USN and USAF Attack Aircraft, 1960-1968
5 – The Navy VAL Competition and Vought R&D on the A-7
6 – The Army/ Air Force Dispute over Close Air Support and the Decision to Buy the Air Force A-7
7 – Navy Combat Experience with the A-7A/B
8 – Development of the Air Force A-7D
9 – Combat in Linebackers I and II and Beyond
10 – The A-10 Attack Aircraft
11 – Air Force/ Navy/ Marine Corps Fighter and Strike Aircraft: 1980 to the F-35
12 – The Attack Mission in Retrospect
Author: R.G. Head