Control the Air

On the ground with Marines in Afghanistan, the author sees a different side of close air support.

In Afghanistan, Marines and Afghan forces patrol under cover of an AH-64 Apache. (Ed Darack)
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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.

Long into the cold war, the strategic nuclear mission remained the Department of Defense’s air priority. But experience on the ground in the Vietnam War, which began without a joint Army-Air Force doctrine of close air support, ushered in new ideas and capabilities for CAS. Two Marine Corps aviators proposed a dedicated forward air controller aircraft, which became the OV-10 Bronco, used by all services. An Air Force captain pushed the development of the side-firing gunship (initially developed for camp perimeter defense, this platform would evolve into one of the deadliest CAS platforms available). The gunship became the AC-130, flown today by special operations crews. And new policies allowed commanders in all services to plan and coordinate air operations with other military branches.

After the strategic air power successes of Operation Desert Storm, debates over the priorities of air missions have continued. The challenge for the air services now is how best to use air power in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, where typically the enemy forces are not concentrated but dispersed and sometimes impossible to find.

About Ed Darack
Ed Darack

Air & Space/Smithsonian contributing editor Ed Darack’s forthcoming book, The Final Mission of Extortion 17 (Smithsonian Books, 2017), covers the story of the people and circumstances of Extortion 17 and its downing in Afghanistan in August 2011. The shootdown was the single deadliest incident in the war in Afghanistan. The book grew out of his article in the Feb./Mar. 2015 issue. See his website and Facebook page for more information.

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