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The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate

Douglas N. Campbell

Few ideas have more appeal to the average digger confronted by, say,  a machine gun post, or a tank, than to just get on the blower and have some Blue Orchid come and drop a bomb on the lowlifes. This is called Close Air Support (CAS). From Joe RAAF's point of view though, CAS is a dubious proposition. He may have to fly low and slow over an area likely to be crawling with deadbeats, some of whom may well be equipped with (God forbid) one of those ZSU-23 cannons or even surface-to-air missiles. But even one hundred AK-47 assault rifles can easily put a thousand bullets in the air and it only takes one to hit a vulnerable point like a hydraulic line or maybe the pilot's head to set  in train a truly unfortunate sequence of events.

In the Second World War, the US Army Air Forces (USAAF) in Europe had favoured the P-47 Thunderbolt over the P-51 Mustang for CAS. The water cooled inline engine that made the P-51 fast and manoeuverable also made it vulnerable to flak and small arms fire, while well-armoured P-47's big air-cooled engine gave it plenty of bomb carrying capacity and its eight .50-calibre machine guns gave it plenty of firepower. The conclusion drawn by many with the US Air Force was that the best CAS plane was a fighter.

When the war broke out in Korea, the Mustangs assumed the burden of CAS. They had more range than the new jet fighters like the F-80, could carry larger bombloads and could operate from rough airstrips in Korea. They did suffer some losses that might have been avoided if the P-47s had still been available. The best CAS plane of the war was the Navy's A-1 Skyraider, a prop driven aircraft that easily outperformed the jets. When the war heated up in Vietnam, the Skyraider was still the frontline CAS aircraft but they were getting older and wearing out from hard use.

Douglas N. Campbell traces the debate over what should be done. This book is a history of the debate, rather than the aircraft. Campbell attempts to be fair and considerate to all points of view, even when their proponents were neither. As a result of the war in Vietnam, ex-Marines in Congress criticised the USAF for not developing a CAS aircraft and prodded it into first buying the A-7 Corsair II (another Navy plane) to replace the Skyraider, and then into developing the A-10 Thunderbolt II (above), arguably the world's foremost CAS aircraft.

The plane was bitterly opposed within the USAF by fighter generals who argued that the best CAS aircraft was a sleek, fast fighter, like the F-16. There was opposition in Congress from representatives of areas where the rival A-7 was made. Strangely the US Army was initially cool about the project, as it was developing a helicopter gunship to perform the CAS role, the AH-56 Cheyenne. When this project sank under its own weight, the US Army bought the relatively cheap AH-1 Cobra and looked upon the A-10 more favourably. Later, Army opposition arose again with the development of the AH-64 Apache. Incredibly, there were some senior officers within the USAF who were all in favour of handing the CAS role over to the Army entirely.

Designed from the ground up as a CAS aircraft, the A-10, has many unusual features. First, it is built for survivability: the pilot sits in an armoured tub and all the critical systems are redundant. Interestingly, many parts are interchangeable between the left and right sides of the aircraft. Secondly, it has the ability to loiter: the plane awaits its call to action circling over the troops for long periods of time so response time is in seconds, not hours. Thirdly, it carries lots of firepower: nearly twice the bombload of most fighters, the Maverick missile and a 30mm tank busting cannon. The result wasn't pretty; indeed the A-10 became popularly known as the Warthog because it's so ugly. Compared with fighters it's slow and ungainly.

Campbell, himself a Hog pilot, notes that a dedicated CAS plane has many human advantages over a multi-role aircraft. The pilots only practice CAS, so they get very good at it; they only think about it, so they develop close ties with the Army guys they support. Ironically, along the way they proved that it is highly effective for A-10s to escort the AH-64s. Working together, the two types of aircraft are even better.

In the field, in Afghanistan, Bosnia and in the two Gulf Wars, the A-10 has justified the faith and efforts of the people who built it. It's ease of maintenance has enabled to to fly a high number of sorties; it has toughed out ground fire that keeps downing helicopters, run up  impressive scores of disabled tanks. As a result, the A-10 has survived the cutbacks of the 1990s. Currently, it is scheduled to fly for at least another ten years, with the F-16s being replaced by F-35s before they start on the A-10s.

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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
mintogrubb
23rd Feb, 2005 16:29 (UTC)
Excellent piccie, Hawkeye!!! Your text, I assume.
hawkeye7
23rd Feb, 2005 23:55 (UTC)
Yep, my text.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )