Control the Air
On the ground with Marines in Afghanistan, the author sees a different side of close air support.
- By Ed Darack
- Air & Space magazine, September 2008
(Page 7 of 8)
A Little Help From Above
Although the first close air support sorties were flown in the Italo-Turkish war of 1911-1912, World War I began without a formal doctrine for using aircraft to support troops on the ground. That was remedied by France in April 1916, when it became the first country to codify the mission.
The most famous U.S. display of the mission’s effectiveness was made in the summer of 1944, when General George Patton’s Third Army raced toward Germany through France. As Patton’s tanks advanced, the P-51 Mustangs and P-47 Thunderbolts of the XIX Tactical Air Command, led by General O.P. Weyland Jr., flew in front of them and struck opposing tanks, blew up tank barriers, and strafed troops, trucks, and gun emplacements. Control of the pilots in the air came not from trained infantry on the ground, but from P-51 and P-47 pilots stationed at the head of the advancing tank columns. The position of air liaison officer, as Weyland called the pilot directing the air strikes, was a coveted one: Pilots took pride in helping their airborne brethren get weapons squarely on the target. The speed of Weyland’s air strikes overcame an Army belief that aircraft should be used only when artillery couldn’t reach.
In that campaign, the performance of the Republic P-47D Thunderbolt, with eight .50-caliber machine guns and the capacity for 2,500 pounds of bombs, reinforced the idea (introduced by a German aircraft in World War I, the Halberstadt CL II) that an aircraft could be designed and produced specifically for close air support. The Jug, as its pilots called it, could also survive severe damage from ground fire to get its pilots home.
The years following World War II were fraught with disagreement among the U.S. military branches over CAS, particularly between the Army and the newly formed Air Force. With responsibilities for all types of air missions — strategic bombing, interdiction (damaging the enemy’s military potential before it can be brought to bear), and transport, as well as close air support — the Air Force began to concentrate its resources on striking the enemy from afar. The Army argued that it needed more control over U.S. Air Force aircraft to help its infantry maneuver because there were still ground wars to fight.
The services disagreed more fervently over priorities for air power at the outbreak of the Korean War than at any other time. The decision in Korea to place Marine Corps air operations under the command of the Air Force exacerbated the discord, but the war also produced another storied demonstration of close air support. As the First Marine Division withdrew fighting from the Chosin Reservoir in the winter of 1950, Marine F4U Corsairs flew day and night, using napalm, gun runs, and rocket attacks to keep the Chinese army hunkered down.