Top 10 Close Air Support aircraft

 

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Born in the desperate last days of World War I, close air support is now over a hundred years old. From the trench-strafing carnage of the 1910s, via the murderous Spanish Civil War, close air support came of age in the Second World War. Throughout its history it has been repeatedly forgotten by air forces across the world, before being hurriedly relearnt, often too late. The US Department of Defense defines CAS as air action by fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft against hostile targets that are in close proximity to friendly forces and that require detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those forces.” Across the last bloody 100 years, certain aircraft types have excelled in the role. The following list is by no means exhaustive, but all the types mentioned deserve their inclusion. 

10. Hawker Typhoon: Eisenhower’s saviour

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If not exactly a failure, it was fair to say that in early 1943 the Hawker Typhoon was regarded as, at best, a qualified success in its primary role as an air-superiority asset. Its subsequent life as a fighter bomber would soon change that. Conceived by Hawker as a Hurricane replacement the Typhoon ran into terrible trouble with its exotic engine and previously unknown aerodynamic effects caused by its great speed. Plus the tail kept falling off. A tortuous development and early service life eventually eradicated most of the bugs and the Typhoon enjoyed a brief moment of fame as the only aircraft with the speed necessary to intercept the Focke-Wulf Fw 190. The improved Spitfire Mk IX soon closed that particular niche as it was a generally superior fighter but by then the Typhoon had found its true forte, attacking not other aircraft but ground targets.

This spectacularly successful change of role was largely the result of one man, Roland Beamont. Commander of one of the first Typhoon units, 609 squadron, Beamont realised that the Typhoon’s strength, heavy armament and low altitude speed made it an ideal ground attacker and in late 1942 he obtained permission for 609 sqn to fly on wide ranging attacks over occupied France by day and night. The results, even though these missions were flown singly or in pairs, were dramatic, 609 sqn alone destroying over 100 locomotives in the following six months whilst shooting down 14 Fw 190s in the same period. Cancellation of the Typhoon programme, which had been a serious consideration at the time, was never considered again and the aircraft went from strength to strength in its new role. Bomb racks were added, as a result the Typhoon could carry a 1000 pound bomb under each wing, this representing a bombload greater than the Bristol Blenheim (still in service with the RAF in 1942 as a light bomber) but in stark contrast the Typhoon was over 100 mph faster and a highly capable fighter, unlike the Blenheim which was effectively defenceless if intercepted. More impressive still was the armament of eight 60 lb rockets that the Typhoon began utilising in 1943. It was famously said that a salvo of all eight rockets represented a destructive force equivalent to a broadside from a destroyer. Whether or not this was actually true, the psychological effect of the rocket armament was impressive, which was useful as the rockets, whilst extremely powerful, were notoriously difficult to aim. Analysis of battlefields showed that many vehicles had been abandoned by crews after suffering only superficial damage from rocket-firing Typhoons. Rockets and bombs could be used interchangeably on the same aircraft but in practice, squadrons tended to specialise in one weapon or the other.

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Following D-day, as the Allies advanced into Europe the Typhoons operated a system known as the ‘Cab Rank’. Developed by the RAF in the Western Desert and refined during the campaign in Italy, standing Typhoon patrols could be called in by RAF personnel assigned to Army units and known as Forward Air Controllers to attack targets at extremely short notice. This was the first application of genuinely close air support on a large scale in which specific targets could be identified to pilots by troops on the ground and it proved decisive. So successful was the system that some 23 Typhoon squadrons served with the 2nd Tactical Air Force between 1944 and 45 as it advanced across Europe into Germany.

To give but one example of the effectiveness of the Typhoon, on the 10th of July, at Mortain, flying in support of the US 30th Infantry Division, Typhoons flew 294 sorties, firing 2,088 rockets and dropping 73 tons of bombs. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, said of the Typhoons; “The chief credit in smashing the enemy’s spearhead, however, must go to the rocket-firing Typhoon aircraft of the Second Tactical Air Force… The result of the strafing was that the enemy attack was effectively brought to a halt, and a threat was turned into a great victory.” The German Army’s Chief of Staff stated that the attack had been brought to a standstill by 13:00 ‘…due to the employment of fighter-bombers by the enemy, and the absence of our own air-support.’

The Typhoon was developed into the similar but superior Tempest which took over the ground attack role, and all had left RAF service before the end of 1945. Today, of 3317 built, only a single complete example survives.

 

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To support the Typhoon to the skies project have a look at their website here, or on Facebook and Twitter: @project_typhoon

9. Sukhoi Su-25 

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Created to support Soviet ground forces, the Su-25 went to war the same year it entered service, 1981. The aircraft’s baptism of fire was in Afghanistan, where it demonstrated the ability to generate higher sortie rates than any other type, even in the most austere conditions. It was a hard war for the Su-25: 22 aircraft were lost in combat operations, and seven destroyed on the ground. But these hard lessons were learned and led to modifications which enhanced the aircraft’s survivability.

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Since than it has fought in over 15 wars, sometimes — as in the Russo-Ukrainian War and the Georgian War (the region, and later nation, that produced the majority of Su-25s) —  on both sides. The Su-25 is the epitome of the Soviet engineering principle of toughness, simplicity and the spurning of unnecessary high technology.

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Photo Credit : Vadim Savitskiï

The aeroplane has a conventional layout, with considerable amounts of titanium armour and an internal Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-30-2 (ГШ-30-2) 30-mm dual-barrel autocannon which uses the Gast principle to generate high rates of fire (1000-3000rpm). The wings each have five hard-points making the ‘Frogfoot’ a versatile weapons platform and easy to fit with varied bulky weapons and stores. The Su-25 is the most widely exported CAS fixed-wing aircraft of all time having served with over 30 nations.

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8. Mil Mi-24 ‘The Flying Tank’

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The Mi-24 was conceived from the outset as a flying infantry fighting vehicle. It is can survive multiple hits by rifle and 12.7-mm rounds.

The first dedicated Soviet attack helicopter, the Mi-24 is big, well-armed and extremely fast (grabbing a slew of world speed records in the 1970s). Since its introduction in 1972 it has become the most widely used combat aircraft of all time, fighting in over 30 wars across the world with a staggering 68 operators. It is unique in being an attack helicopter with a sizeable troop compartment, able to accommodate up to eight passengers. As with the Su-25 — the simplicity, durability and insensitivity to rough in-the-field maintenance keeps it going when other more exquisite machines are grounded.

 

7. Bell H-1 series (UH-1E/AH-1) ‘The Fanged Huey’ AH-1Z.jpg

When the Marine Corps employed the UH-lE ‘Huey’ in the CAS role in the Vietnam War it was extremely controversial. Armed helicopters had been around since the 1950s, but the Huey was aggressively muscling into a role, dedicated CAS, considered inappropriate for vulnerable helicopters. A year of service revealed the type’s devastating effectiveness. The UH-lE was initially outfitted with two 2.75-inch rocket pods or two .50 calibre gun pods, then a chin turret containing two M60 machine-guns.

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The UH-1E had become an absolute necessity for close-in support of vertical assault operations. There was room for improvement — in 1969 the Marine Corps received its first dedicated attack helicopter – the exceptionally mean Cobra. With its narrow fuselage, tandem-place cockpit and nose-mounted gun, the Cobra was the first real helicopter gunship. In the Vietnam War it demonstrated how effectively helicopters could be used in the fire support role. Despite its success it suffered a high attrition rate: well over a quarter of the Cobras deployed to Vietnam were destroyed by enemy fire or lost in accidents. It established the template for attack helicopters, and it influenced the Mi-24, AH-64, Tiger, Mangusta and every other gunship helicopter that followed. Despite its first flight being almost fifty years ago, the Cobra remains in production today. The latest family member, the AH-1Z, is one of the best in its class.

6. Republic P-47 Thunderbolt ‘Patton’s Jugs’

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“Just east of Le Mans was one of the best examples of armor and air cooperation I have ever seen. For about two miles, the road was full of enemy transport and armor, many of which bore the unmistakable calling card of the P-47 fighterbomber – namely, a group of fifty-caliber holes in the concrete. Whenever armor and air can work together in this way, the results are sure to be excellent. . . . To accomplish this happy teamwork two things are necessary: first, intimate confidence and friendship between air and ground; second, incessant and apparently ruthless driving on the part of the ground commander. A pint of sweat saves a gallon of blood. ” — General George S. Patton Jr. USA

The Thunderbolt was huge, weighing the same as two Spitfires*. It was long-ranged, well-armed with eight .50 cals, rockets and bombs — and extremely manoeuvrable for its size. Importantly, it was also exceptionally tough — Jugs riddled with bullet holes and missing huge sections often recovered in a manner that verged on the miraculous. P-47s even returned to base with entire cylinder heads shot off. For example ace Robert Johnson recalled “I had 21 20mm cannon shells in that airplane, and more than 200 7.92mm machine gun bullets. One nicked my nose and another entered my right leg… I had been hurt worse playing football”. Compare this to the P-51 Mustang – a single rifle calibre bullet in the radiator will bring the aircraft down. The radiator incidentally, being located on the belly of the aircraft in the most vulnerable spot when facing fire from the ground. It is easy therefore to see why the Thunderbolt was the preferred fighter for ground attack missions. Unlike the Typhoon however, the P-47 was also highly successful in air combat, its gradual sidelining in the escort mission by the P-51 Mustang reflecting no huge criticism of the aircraft regarding fighting ability, though even the most ardent Thunderbolt enthusiast would have to admit that the P-51 was both faster and had the edge in manoeuvrability. The major decider was range, the P-47 was massive and heavy and as a result consumed some 100 gallons of fuel an hour in the cruise and over 300 at full power which could not equal the P-51’s meagre thirst for a mere 64 and 120 gallons respectively. The bottom line was that the Mustang could escort a bomber to Berlin and back and the Thunderbolt could not. Meanwhile the P-47’s insane ability to absorb punishment saw its importance to an army now engaged on the ground in Europe skyrocket.

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Before the invasion of Europe began, the IX Tactical Air Command — a force dedicated to CAS — consisted of 1,600 P-47 Thunderbolts, P-51 Mustangs, P-38 Lightings and 35,000 airmen. The P-47s flew exceptionally dangerous missions, lost many men and aircraft, yet proved a fearsome weapon. By the end of the Second World War, ground fire posed a much greater threat to Allied aircraft than enemy fighters and German flak guns were powerful, accurate and numerous. Over the course of operations after D-day, the Thunderbolt proved to be the premier American CAS asset. As well as being more resistant to battle damage than the Mustang the P-47 also possessed a greater installed firepower. By the end of the war the Thunderbolt would be able to carry external stores of bombs, rockets, or fuel up to a maximum of 2500 lbs (a typical load might include three 500lb bombs and 10 3-inch rockets) but the sheer bulk of the aircraft meant that it was always demanding on field length.

In the Korean War, the USAF used the woefully inappropriate F-80 jet aircraft and they bemoaned the lack of Thunderbolts (now re-designated F-47s). Flown on a round trip from Japan, the F-80s often had ten minutes or less on where they were desperately needed. “The commander of Fifth Air Force (later commander of FEAF, the Far East Air Force) Maj. Gen. Earle Partridge, would have preferred F-47s, a “far better strafing and dive bomber airplane” but none of those were available.” In the absence of Thunderbolts and desperately requiring a better solution than the Japan-based F-80, the less-than-ideal Mustang was drafted in. In April 1951 alone the USAF lost 25 Mustangs to ground fire. The potential superiority of the Thunderbolt was acknowledged by all, to the extent that General Stratemeyer, commander of the FEAF, formally requested any Thunderbolts that were available, even just the 25 examples then serving with the Hawaii Air National Guard. He noted that there had been a major increase in Communist anti-aircraft firepower but stated that “All here know the F-47 can take it”. Alas, noting lack of spare parts and the logistical issues of introducing another aircraft to the conflict General Hoyt Vandenburg coldly responded “we fail to see any appreciable results to be gained by the substitution”, thus spelling a death sentence for many Mustang pilots who might otherwise have survived.

It is however a telling demonstration of just how good the mighty P-47 was that in 1951, some six years after it last saw action, it was so desperately needed for frontline service that four-star generals were begging for mere handfuls of what was now quite an elderly aircraft. In the words of historian W A Jacobs: “If the P-47’s designers had set out to build a high-performance aircraft for close air support, they could hardly have done better within the existing technology”.

*P-47D/Spitfire IX

 

5. Junkers Ju 87 ‘Stuka’ ‘The Screaming Stuka’

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“Stukas! . . . Squadron upon squadron rise to a great height, break into line ahead (Reihenformation) and there, there the first machines hurtle perpendicularly down, followed by the second, third – ten, twelve aeroplanes are there. Simultaneously like some bird of prey, they fall upon their victim and then release their loads of bombs on the target. We can see the bombs very clearly. It becomes a regular rain of bombs, that whistle down on . . . the bunker positions. Each time the explosion is overwhelming, the noise deafening. Everything becomes blended together; along with the howling sirens of the Stukas in their dives, the bombs whistle and crack and burst. . . We stand and watch what is happening as if hypnotized; down below all hell is let loose! At the same time we are full of confidence . . . and suddenly we notice that the enemy artillery no longer shoots . . . “

–Sergeant Prumers, 1st Panzer Division, 1940

Though long held as the pioneers of modern close air support, today many would argue that the early Second World War saw the Ju 87 force acting less an integrated close air support role, and more in a role that sat somewhere between traditional bomber, precision attack aircraft and ad hoc battlefield support. Quite how much the Luftwaffe’s application of tactical air power conforms to the modern concept of CAS continues to be the subject of lively debate. What is not in doubt is that in the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka the Germans possessed an exceptional CAS platform. Often derided today due to its poor showing in the Battle of Britain (the result of using the world’s supreme tactical aircraft for a strategic role it was neither designed nor intended for) the Ju 87 operated at staggeringly close quarters to the armed forces it was supporting and could strike with an accuracy that would not be reattained until the advent of guided munitions at the end of the 20th century. Despite being considered obsolete by the Luftwaffe even before the war, Ju 87s launched the German air offensive on the 1st of September 1939 (one Stuka incidentally scoring the first air to air kill of the Second World War in the process), attacking their targets 11 minutes before the official declaration of hostilities. Even more remarkably, the same ‘obsolete’ aircraft flew the last Luftwaffe ground attack mission on the 4th of May 1945, four days after Hitler had shot himself.

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One of comparatively few aircraft to be known by the same nickname to both friend and foe: Stuka being a shortening of the generic term Sturzkampfflugzeug (literally ‘Diving war aeroplane’), the Junkers Ju 87 first flew in 1935. Like the prototypes of several new Nazi aircraft, the Ju 87 was powered by a Rolls-Royce engine. Even more surprisingly the new aircraft was built in Sweden. In a rather cruel irony the Junkers Ju 87 remains probably the most famous aircraft to bear the Junkers name, yet Hugo Junkers was a pacifist and a socialist who died under house arrest, whilst the Nazis busily stole his assets, in the same year the Stuka first flew.

Initially the Ju 87 received a lukewarm reception from the Luftwaffe, being considered too slow and with insufficient climb rate but the installation of a more powerful Jumo 210 D engine improved the situation somewhat and the new aircraft was tested secretly but successfully in Spain. The era of its truly spectacular success began in 1939 and continued unabated for the first year or so of the war. So symbolic of the Nazi war machine has the Stuka become that it is quite difficult to view it dispassionately, as one historian put it “More crap has been written about the Stuka than about any other aeroplane in history.”  Hardly surprising when it combines a design as angularly sinister as the Nazi swastika with the horrific psychological component of a deafening siren intended purely to terrify those on the receiving end of its vertical attacks. The Stuka has become a virtual flying shorthand for the Blitzkrieg and unprovoked and pitiless Nazi belligerence and terror.
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Yet the Ju 87 was a profoundly practical aircraft for its role, it was rugged, reliable, easy to fly and maintain, but perhaps most important of all it was clinically accurate. In 1943 it was discovered that only 16% of US bombers using the much-vaunted Norden bombsight were getting their bombs within 1000 feet of the aiming point, by contrast if 100% of a Stuka squadron’s bombs were delivered within a 10 metre (33 feet) circle, accuracy was considered ‘satisfactory’. A hit 100 feet away was considered a bad miss; for a contemporary conventional bomber that would represent the pinnacle of accuracy. The Stuka was not, of course, the only dive bomber of the war but it was one of very few able to perform a genuine 90 degree dive and was probably the most accurate of the conflict. As a result, its tactical use as, essentially, long-range artillery was relentless. Ground units could, and did, rely on the Junkers dive bombers to clear strongpoints and disperse concentrations of vehicles.
The extent to which the army relied on the Stuka can be gauged by this 1941 order issued by Luftflotte 4 as it advanced into the Soviet Union:  “Troops must not count on the same type of support that they have grown accustomed to in previous campaigns. Officers and men must be aware that the Luftwaffe may support the operations of Army Group South only in the immediate centre of the attack. The tendency to call in a Stuka attack at the first sign of enemy resistance must from now on be resisted at all costs”. This is hardly surprising as despite its amazing usefulness and ubiquity there were never more than 400 Ju 87s on front line strength at any given time. As a result, on the Eastern Front, Stukas were required to fly up to five missions per day. The pinnacle of the Junkers Ju 87’s career was over Stalingrad, by now a well-honed weapon with massively experienced crews, the Ju 87 force operated an average of 500 sorties per day but with a loss rate of just 0.2%.
From 1943 however the tide turned, the Ju 87 was vulnerable to fighters and as the Luftwaffe slowly gave up air superiority, dive bomber losses mounted. Even then the Ju 87 had one last ace to play in the CAS role. Armed with two 3.7cm cannon derived from a First World War flak gun (and brilliantly nicknamed the panzerknacker) and boasting Il-2 Sturmovik inspired armour the Ju 87 supplanted and ultimately replaced the Henschel Hs 129 in the anti-tank role and in the right hands could deliver spectacular results. Between them the top 58 Stuka pilots destroyed over 3700 tanks, 519 by Hans-Ulrich Rudel alone. Rudel, the most successful Stuka pilot and unrepentant Nazi, ultimately served as a consultant on the A-10 program, another slow, accurate, and terrifying CAS aircraft, which despite its official name of Thunderbolt II is, more accurately, the modern Stuka.

 

4.Douglas AD (A-1) Skyraider ‘Able Dog the Destroyer’ 

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The Douglas AD (later A-1) Skyraider was the best close air support aircraft of its generation and was valued for its capabilities even after it was superseded by more modern aircraft.  It was originally designed as an anti-ship aircraft to replace the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver dive bomber and the Grumman TBF/TBM Avenger torpedo bomber in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. Too late to see action during World War II, it replaced the SB2C and TBM in carrier-based attack squadrons beginning in 1947 and completely by the start of the Korean War in 1950.

A low-wing, single-engine monoplane, the AD was fitted with the Wright 3350 radial engine, which gave it more lifting power than any previous carrier aircraft, rivalled only by the short-lived Martin AM Mauler. The low wing enabled it to feature fifteen bomb racks and carry a wide variety of ordnance and external fuel tanks. The AD had a longer range than the Navy’s early jets and a far superior load carrying capability. It would typically carry an 8,000-pound bomb load on missions over Korea. Land-based Marine Corps squadrons in Korea typically carried a 10,000-pound load.

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Along with the more numerous Vought F4U Corsair, the Skyraider proved to be a grimly effective close air support aircraft, making multiple passes using bombs, rockets cannon fire, and napalm canisters to savage the Communist Chinese and North Korean forces. For example, during the first six months of the war, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft — mostly meaning Skyraiders and Corsairs—were credited with the demise of 20,000 of the 40,000 Communist soldiers killed to date. Skyraiders armed with 2,000-pound bombs also proved effective in bunker-busting of enemy lines in the hills and mountains along the front. The ADs were equally effective as a strike aircraft, interdicting trains and truck convoys and destroying dams and bridges, and doing interdiction at night with night-attack versions. During one raid, ADs used aerial torpedoes to strike a dam and damage its gates. The Skyraider is considered the most important naval aircraft of the Korean War.

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Jets began to replace the Skyraiders in Marine Corps in the late 1950s but soldiered on in the Navy as attack aircraft. AD-4/4N/4NA (A-1D) Skyraiders were exported to the French Air Force and used extensively for close air support during the Algerian Civil War and the Chadian Civil War. As the French retired the Skyraider, some Skyraiders were transferred to former colonies, seeing combat in Chad and Cambodia. (The last Skyraiders to see service were ex-French A-1Ds assigned to the Gabon Presidential Guard, finally retired in 1982.)

The Skyraider’s payload and long loiter time made it an attractive choice to replace the F8F Bearcat and T-28 in the Air Force of South Vietnam (VNAF) and in the U.S Air Force (USAF) Air Commando squadrons (later Special Operations squadrons) in South Vietnam. U.S. Navy A-1 Skyraiders were transferred to both services which effectively employed the aircraft in South Vietnam in close air support. The USAF also used its Skyraiders support special operations forces in Laos and to escort rescue helicopters deep inside Laos and North Vietnam. The aforementioned payload and loiter capabilities, as well as its relatively slow speed, made them ideal for suppressing enemy forces trying to capture downed airmen before they could be rescued. USAF A-1s carried a wide variety of ordnance, including a Minigun to provide suppressive fire. 

U.S. Navy A-1 Skyraiders equipped several air wings during the first four years of the Vietnam War. They flew strike missions in Southeast Asia, provided naval gunfire spotting, and flew close air support missions in South Vietnam and Laos. Like the USAF A-1s, Navy A-1s were used extensively as escorts for search and rescue missions. Navy A-1s also achieved two confirmed aerial kills of North Vietnamese MiG-17 jet fighters. The growing effectiveness of North Vietnamese air defences, especially SA-2 surface-to-air missiles, made the Skyraider an easier target over North Vietnam, where the Skyraider’s flights were increasingly limited to search-and-rescue missions. In South Vietnam, the introduction in 1972 of the SA-7 shoulder-launched surface-to-air to North Vietnamese infantry forces limited the survivability of the Skyraider in the close air support role.

The USAF transferred its last A-1s to the VNAF in November 1972, replaced in the SAR support role by the Vought A-7D Corsair II. The VNAF continued to use the A-1 until the nation’s demise in April 1975. Warfare technology eventually surpassed the Skyraider, but in its prime—and for years beyond—it proved itself as a premier close air support aircraft. 

— Richard R. Burgess, author of these books on the Skyraider

Senior Editor, Seapower Magazine

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3. Boeing AH-64 Apache 

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Though the 1948 Key West Agreement forbade the Army from owning fixed-wing combat aircraft, the US Army never became comfortable with the idea that they must depend on the Air Force for aerial support battlefield support (especially as USAF often fails to prioritise the mission when choosing new aircraft). Denied an inhouse fleet of fixed-wing aircraft, US Army attack helicopters grew faster, more sophisticated and considerably more expensive. After several ambitious attempts in the 60s and 70s to replace the AH-1 failed, the Apache entered service in 1984. The Apache offered unprecedented situational awareness for an attack helicopter, an advantage that was fortified by the addition of a radar on the D model. It was also armed to the teeth, with a trainable 30-mm chain gun, unguided (and later guided) rockets and guided missiles.

In war, such as in Afghanistan, an Apache’s crew of two are busy, perhaps busier than the crew of any aircraft. Comprehending the mass of information from the aircraft’s sensors, off-board information and their own eyes in fast-changing unconventional warfare is an extremely difficult task, but once mastered makes the Apache —as one pilot we interviewed grimly noted: “The ultimate killing machine.”

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The AH-64 was not supposed to be a close air support platform. Designed to employ its three weapon systems against enemy tanks from a hover and then move from battle position to battle position flying at treetop height, the Apache was a tank killer from its inception. Two major events in 1972 directly influenced the mission set for the concept that would evolve into the Apache. The April 1972 Battle of An Loc saw High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) rocket-armed AH-1G Cobras and TOW missile-armed NUH-
1Bs destroy numerous tanks, blunting the North Vietnamese invasion. While the majority of the actions fought during An Loc were classic Close Air Support missions over friendly troops in contact, the Army focused on the attack helicopter’s successes killing tanks, and the rest as they say, is history. The cancellation of the AH-56 Cheyenne programme in August 1972 was the other. The Cheyenne was designed as a CAS platform from the beginning to support troops on the ground. Able to carry eight 19-
shot rocket pods or a mix of rockets and TOW missiles; and mounting two turreted weapons, a single Cheyenne carried more than twice the combat load of the AH-1G. But the Cheyenne’s technology was not yet mature, and after several years of delays and reduced interest by the Army, the program was cancelled with only ten aircraft built.
The day after Cheyenne’s cancellation, the Army initiated the Advanced Attack Helicopter programme, which would yield the AH-64 just a few years later. Gone was the primary requirement for supporting troops on the ground, and instead, the helicopter was built around the new anti-tank missile; the AGM- 114 Hellfire and designed as a tank killer. The Apache was to be the great equaliser, protecting the Fulda Gap from the Soviet armoured hordes invading Western Europe in a future World War III. It was to
sit at a hover, moving from battle position to battle position, unleashing Hellfires at maximum range and reducing Soviet tank numbers before they got within range of friendly armour. Surprisingly, the Apache’s 1989 combat debut in Panama was as a fire support platform, where its Night Vision System was a key asset in targeting Panamanian resistance and directing troops on the ground.

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Lieutenant General Carl Steiner, Commander of XVIII Airborne Corps during Just Cause praised the AH- 64s capabilities by saying it could “Fire a hellfire missile through a window at five miles away, at night”. The ability to precisely engage such a small target from miles away was designed to be effective against tanks, but served the AH-64A well in Operation Desert Storm in January 1991 when AH-64As of 1-101st Aviation Regiment, destroyed several key antiaircraft radar stations along the Iraq-Kuwait border,
knocking out a 20-mile wide portion of the Iraqi early warning Air Defense network and opening the door for coalition air assets to begin striking targets inside Iraq. Apache battalions acquitted themselves well during the short conflict, performing battlefield interdiction missions well forward of the rapidly shrinking front lines, destroying over 500 tanks and hundreds of other vehicles before the cessation of hostilities.

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However, as with most combat aircraft, the Apache’s three decades in service have seen its role evolve with the conflicts in which it has participated and its mission capabilities mature. In the aftermath of 9/11, Apaches deployed to Afghanistan to combat Al Qaeda and Taliban forces, where the armour threat was minimal. It was there that the AH-64 returned to the attack helicopter’s roots as a Close Air Support platform.

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The operational environment in Afghanistan is harsh. Taliban and Al Qaeda forces are not the pilots’ only concerns, as high altitude and high temperature can have more of an adverse effect on helicopter performance than enemy fire. The hover fire tactics that Apache pilots had trained on since the type went operational in 1984 were not possible in hot/high conditions and pilots were forced to resort to the running/diving fire techniques perfected by their Cobra pilot brethren a generation earlier.

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These fast moving techniques allowed better freedom of movement and coordination with troops on the ground, and became the standard for Apache operations in Afghanistan. The following year saw the invasion of Iraq and the combat debut of the AH-64D, which brought the Apache into the digital age and increased its ability to conduct the CAS mission even further.

 

 

ah-64-apache-apach-udarnyy.jpgThe Longbow Apache’s digital cockpit greatly enhanced situational awareness for both crewmembers, and the introduction of the AGM-114L Longbow Hellfire allowed crews to attack targets that were blocked by smoke or other obscurant that the helicopter’s laser designator could not penetrate. Now troops on the ground only needed to pass along a GPS grid coordinate to the Apache crew, and the Longbow Hellfire could be fired right at those coordinates. The first Longbow Hellfire used in combat was fired against an Iraqi T-72, but many more would be fired at a multitude of targets in the first weeks of the invasion of Iraq.

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The operational environments in Afghanistan and Iraq forced a return to providing close support (now called Close Combat Attack by the Army) to troops on the ground. They became so effective that enemy combatants often refused to engage US forces if Apaches were in the area. New versions of the Hellfire like the AGM-114N thermobaric Hellfire were ideal for taking out caves or buildings with minimal collateral damage. The night vision system was updated in 2008 with the addition of the Modernized Target Acquisition/Designation Sight and Arrowhead Pilot’s Night Vision System, allowing unprecedented image clarity from miles away in complete darkness. In 2010, the capability to receive UAV video feed was incorporated into the Apache’s repertoire, even further increasing the coordination between the helicopter and the troops it supports. Lastly, in 2012 the adoption of the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System turned the standard Hydra 70 rocket family into precision guided munitions and boosting the Apache’s lethality against precision targets. The ideal melding of evolving sensors, weapons and techniques have evolved the Apache into not only the world’s premiere attack helicopter, but the premiere Close Combat Attack platform in the world. Operational necessity brought the AH-64 back to the role it was destined to fill, even though shortsightedness initially overlooked that role.

  • Jonathan Bernstein is the Supervisory Museum Curator, US Army Air Defense Artillery Museum at US Army

He has written these books on the Apache, P-47 and AH-1.

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2. Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II

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During its development what became the A-10 endured the toughest testing of any US military aircraft before or since. Parts were exposed to large volumes of actual gunfire, in rigorous evaluations that created the most survivable of modern aircraft. The A-10 was built around a massive gun, a 30-mm rotary gun longer than a VW Beetle, capable of spewing out 4000 milk-bottle sized rounds a minute. Designed to support soldiers in the battlefield and kill tanks, this slow low-cost aircraft was not wanted by many in USAF. The air force did not want a subordinate position to the army and loved fast high technology aircraft, and so loathed this project.

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It was largely thanks to the ‘Fighter Mafia’, a rebellious group of reformers that the programme survived. One member, Pierre Sprey, had interviewed Skyraider pilots who had fought in Vietnam. Analysis of these interviews showed what was needed was a “long loiter time, low-speed manoeuvrability, massive cannon firepower, and extreme survivability” – so in many ways the success of the Skyraider informed the design of the A-10. Before it fought, many doubted such a slow aircraft could survive in combat,  but the A-10 proved ferociously effective in Desert Storm, and fought with distinction in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. Its planned replacement by the F-35 is controversial and shows a return to faith in expensive high technology. Repeatedly threatened with retirement, the A-10 has enjoyed repeated reprieves and is proving typically hard to kill.

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  1. Il-2 Shturmovik: Stalin’s Hammer, Novikov’s Sickle

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In the Great Patriotic War, ground attack aircraft were the main offensive element of the Red Army Air Force. The importance of such aircraft kept grew steadily over the course of the war. Before the war less than 0.2 percent of the total number of frontline combat aircraft was Il-2s; by autumn 1942, this had become 31 percent, before levelling off at whopping 29-32 percent for the rest of the fighting (by comparison, the share of daytime bombers never exceeded 15 percent). The importance of close air support, which was possible only from low heights (600m to 800m) where the targets were clearly visible — was proved without a shadow of a doubt.

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A destroyed tank column in Belorussia, 1944. Black & white images: Oleg Rastrenin

With strikes delivered from different altitudes in groups of six-nine Il-2s at distances over 1,000 to 1,200 meters from the forward formations of advancing troops, two to four kilometres of enemy held territory was taken per day – not more. But the in case of concentrated and massive air strikes combined with multi-layered actions by regimental and divisional groups at a distance of approximately 200 -300 meres from friendly troops, the breakthrough pace grew dramatically to 10-15 kilometres per day. Such a pace prevented the German command from having sufficient time ‘closing’ the gaps in their defences and creating adequate concentrating combat groups in order to make flanking counter-attacks. There simply was not enough time.

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A German tank column wrecked by Il-2s.

Under such combat conditions, the Il-2s were subjected to extremely heavy fire from enemy ground- and air forces. According to the Red Army Air Force Air Gunnery Service Administration, it was not unusual for 8,000 to 9,000 large-calibre (13-mm) bullets and 200 to 300 small-calibre (20-mm to 37-mm) rounds to be fired at an attacking Il-2. Given that the ground attack aircraft remained above the battlefield for, on average, 10-20 minutes at a height of 200 to 1,000 metres, the crew faced a seemingly untraversable ‘sea of fire’. What saved them was the combat survivability features implemented on the Il-2; these included the armoured hull, self-sealing fuel tanks, the filling of fuel tanks with inert gas and the duplicated elevator controls. The armour reliably protected the pilot and the vital elements of the aeroplane from rifle calibre weapons and offered partial protection from larger artillery. Furthermore, the immense strength that the Il-2’s airframe had always had contributed to the enhanced combat survivability of the aircraft.

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Il-2s over Berlin. The Il-2’s wing featuring the Clark-YH airfoil did not lose its lifting efficiency even in conditions of a severe skin failure. This enabled the pilots to make it to friendly territory or airfield and to land with a damaged wing.

The armament of the Il-2 —two 23-mm VYa cannons, unguided rockets, and 400-600kg of bombs — were the right weapons for close combat air support. The variety of weaponry took into account the typical targets over the battlefield (artillery, mortars, motor vehicles, firing points, and infantry), against which ground attack aircraft had to act during the war. Armed with dispensers carry small anti-armour bomblets (312 bombs carried onboard) and 132mm armour-piercing and high-explosive rockets enabled the Il-2s to fight medium and heavy Wehrmacht tanks with confidence.

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German aircraft destroyed at Khersones in 1944.

In terms of reliability and maintainability, the aircraft quite conformed to the level that the Soviet aviation industry was able to provide at that time. Against the background of other Soviet-made combat aircraft, the build quality of the Il-2 looked more than decent.

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A German column devastated by IL-2s.

Vitally, the construction of the Il-2 met the requirements of large-scale manufacture, the rough conditions of operation, and of rapid repair in a wartime environment. The aircraft was easy to manufacture and undemanding to repair; it utilised low-quality materials and could be assembled by semi-skilled labour. Production could be geared up quickly, saturating frontline units with the much-needed aircraft within miraculously short times.

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Il-2s about to take-off.

The mass use of the Il-2 on the frontline was devastating. Well-developed tactics in concert with ground troops and covering fighters finally resulted in staggering successes. The phenomenon of the Il-2, one of the best attack aircraft of the Second World War, was born.

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Let us assume, as comparison criterion, the probability of success in providing air support for advancing troops. This involves the suppression of a battalion area which comprises: an anti-tank defensive post and three company defence areas with reinforcements, we will find that the Il-2 armed with VYa cannons was 2.3 times as good as the Junkers Ju 87D-5, 5.3 times as good as the Henschel Hs129B-2/R3, and twice as good as the Focke-Wulf Fw 190F-8.

 

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A later series Il-2.

In terms of combatting lightly armoured vehicles and medium tanks in the course of repelling the enemy’s counter strikes, the Il-2 was 2.7 times better than the Ju 87D-5, 2.8 times as good as the Hs 129B-2/R3, and 1.8 times better than the Fw 190F. Accordingly, to achieve an equal result, a lower amount of Il-2s was required in comparison with German aircraft.

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In total throughout the war, the Red Army Air Force received 31,949 Il-2s of all versions (1,258 in 1941; 7,105 in 1942; 10,599 in 1943; 9,988 in 1944; 2,999 as of 01 June 1945) including 8,067 single-seat Il-2s and 23,882 two-seat Il-2s.

Combat losses of the Il-2s totalled 11,448 aircraft (503 in 1941; 1,676 in 1942; 3,649 in 1943; 3,727 in 1944; 1,893 as of 1 June 1945).

In conclusion, the following is the opinion expressed in respect of the Il-2 by strike pilot, twice Hero of the Soviet Union, Marshal of Aviation A.N. Efimov (288 combat sorties): “The Il-2 ground attack aircraft is not simply another step in the development of the engineering thought: it is an entire era in the history of Soviet military aviation.”

— Oleg Rastrenin

Oleg Rastrenin graduated from the Moscow Applied Physics Institute in 1986 and commenced military service. He subsequently graduated from the Zhukovskiy Air Force Academy. He holds the rank of major and the title of doctor of science. Rastrenin has been working on the history of Soviet aviation since 1992, with his major research projects focusing on air tactics and the combat employment of aircraft. He has published more than 20 articles on the history of attack aircraft in Russian and foreign magazines, and is also the author of the books Red Army Attack Aircraft (1941-1945), Red Army Attack Aviation – Tough Experience and The Il-10.

He is the author of this book on the Il-2

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“Our Red Army now needs Il-2 aircraft like the air it breathes, like the bread it eats.” These were the words Stalin used to express his dissatisfaction with an aircraft factory behind on production rates. This might just tell you something about how important the Shturmovik (“ground attack” in Russian) was on the Eastern Front. Forget your A-10s, forget your Harriers, when an aircraft is so good at its role that it defines the nature of an air theatre, you know it’s formidable.

This was the original tank-killer. The aircraft that devastated German mechanised columns, that frustrated Luftwaffe aces, that scared Wehrmacht troops so much they dubbed it “The Flying Tank.” German pilots would report emptying their entire ammunition loads into Il-2s, only to watch them carry on flying. AA crews could get direct hits and the Shturmovik would shrug it off like a babushka when she’s told her farm’s been collectivised. While Soviet reports of combat destruction were, without a doubt, exaggerated, the impact that the Il-2 had on harrying and disrupting the German war machine was vital to the Red Army’s success and progress on the front.

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In typical, glorious Soviet style, Il-2 pilots were ordered to never return with unspent ammunition – fine for the guy in front, sitting in his armoured bathtub, less so for the rear-gunner who had very little protection at all. Soviet troops on the ground would even request passes from the CAS aircraft even after they had expended all their ammunition simply because of the effect it had on German soldiers. But life was cheap in the USSR, and there was never a shortage of crews for the Ilyusha.

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Nor was there ever a shortage of aircraft. Much like the famous T-34 tank, Soviet factories produced absurd numbers of Il-2s. The true sign of how significant the Shturmovik is as a CAS aircraft, the role it played in the battlefield and how much it changed the course of the war comes in this fact: the Il-2 Shturmovik is the most produced military aircraft in history . Enough said.

 

— Sam Wise

 

Sam Wise spends far too much time thinking about aeroplanes, and occasionally tweets about them and anything else

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Sadly, this site will pause operations in December if it does not hit its funding targets. There is now less than a week. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here.

 

Follow my vapour trail on Twitter: @Hush_kit

 Special thanks to Gennady Sloutskiy, Minal Daswan and Thomas Newdick. 

You may also enjoy Ten incredible cancelled Soviet fighter aircraftTen worst Soviet aircraftTen incredible cancelled military aircraftFighter aircraft news round-up,  11 Cancelled French aircraft or the 10 worst British military aircraftSu-35 versusTyphoon10 Best fighters of World War II Su-35 versus Typhoontop WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to WarplanesFlying and fighting in the Tornado. Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? Try Sigmund Freud’s Guide to Spyplanes. The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 10 great aircraft stymied by the US

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2 comments

  1. texl1649

    Reference to the Northrop YA-9A is probably still warranted when noting the Frogfoot’s configuration. Great article.

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