Approved for public release; distribution is unlimited.
Published Airpower Journal -
Dr Richard P. Hallion
MORE than 70 years have passed since armed aircraft first attacked troops in what would now be considered close air support (CAS) and battlefield air interdiction (BAI) missions. An extraordinary amount of thought and discussion has resulted in numerous publications, papers, and symposia concerned with the issue of battlefield support in virtually all its aspects. Today, this continuing interest is particularly significant, as the military services struggle to come to grips with the future of the CAS/BAI mission.
Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Publication (Pub) 1, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, defines close air support as "air action against hostile targets which are in close, proximity to friendly forces and which require detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those forces." But battlefield air interdiction is not so crisply defined. Traditional air interdiction (AI)--again according to JCS Pub 1--is defined as "air operations conducted to destroy, neutralize, or delay the enemy's military potential before it can be brought to bear effectively against friendly forces at such distance from friendly forces that detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of friendly forces is not required." BAI, basically air interdiction used to support close-in battle, is described in the following definition: "air interdiction attacks against land force targets which have near-term effect on the operations or scheme of maneuver of friendly forces, but are not in close proximity to friendly forces, are referred to as battlefield air interdiction." As one Air Force general recently wrote, "Our concept of BAI-what it is, how it is controlled, etc.--is still evolving."1
With all these particulars in mind, it is well to take a look at the CAS/BAI issue from the perspective of over seven decades of operations; we may postulate some points, explaining them in greater detail:
1. We have always done what are now delineated as CAS/BAI operations. CAS and BAI date to the First World War, specifically to 1917, when the Royal Flying Corps (RFC, subsequently the Royal Air Force [RAF]) began intensive and well-organized "trench strafing" (CAS) and "ground strafing" (BAI) missions over the western front. Using modified bomb-carrying fighters such as the S.E. 5a and Sopwith Camel, the RFC undertook operations directly over the front and attacked second-echelon forces to a depth of 30 or more kilometers behind the front. The Imperial German Air Service followed suit. Such activities by British, German, French, and American airmen were commonplace in the ebb and flow of the great offensives of 1918 and were extensively reported in the memoirs and documents of the time. BAI played a decisive role in the collapse of Turkish forces in Palestine during a brief and merciless air campaign in the late summer of 1918. CAS/ BAI appeared in many of the interwar conflicts of the 1920s and 1930s and, above all, in the three great wars of the interwar years: Abyssinia, Spain, and China. Spanish fighting was characterized by extensive CAS/BAI employment by both sides, culminating in the climactic fighting at the Ebro River in 1938.2
CAS/BAI played a significant role in fighting during the Second World War, particularly during the Nazi blitzkrieg, fighting in the Western Desert, the Italian campaign, the breakout across northern France, and fighting on the eastern front. Despite many false starts in the interwar and early war years, it was only in 1943--after the bitter experience of Kasserine and the exposure of American airmen to the British Western Desert air support system--that the United States first came to grips in a realistic fashion with the problem of supporting ground forces by direct air attack. Field Manual 100-20, Command and Employment of Air Power, sprang from this experience and governed the subsequent use of American tactical air support for the rest of the war. Though Gen George Kenney had worked on this problem the previous year (in New Guinea), the peculiarities of Southwest Pacific warfare generated circumstances markedly different from the more traditional form of warfare being waged in the North African and European theaters. In particular, low-level attackers were able to prosecute air strikes with relatively light losses, something that would not have been possible in more densely defended European or Mediterranean skies. In many cases, Kenney's attackers were more frequently--and profitably--employed on air-denial missions against Japanese airfields rather than on actual CAS- and BAI-style missions. For their part, the Navy and Marine Corps refined a particular kind of CAS operation whereby CAS served as a substitute for the lack of available artillery. Rooted in the Marines' "small wars" experience of the 1920s-30s, this system (which tied Marine and Navy air units closely to the ground forces they supported) proved both effective and a source of controversy in the postwar years. During the Second World War, the "swing-role" fighter-bomber reappeared in Allied and Axis service, complementing and eventually replacing the specialized attack airplane as the major instrument of air-to-ground battlefield attack.3
Korea witnessed an extensive range of CAS/BAI activity. Further, the short but savage Sinai campaign of 1956 (and the subsequent 1967 and 1973 Middle East wars) witnessed decisive CAS/BAI operations, with the concentrated Israeli attacks upon Egyptian forces in the Mitla Pass region of Egypt during the 1967 war offering perhaps the best example. Far more typical of post-World War II combat was the employment of CAS/BAI during the "limited" wars of the 1950s-80s, particularly Malaya (where it occasionally worked well), Indochina (where it could not save the French from defeat), Algeria (where it did, but other considerations dictated a settlement), southern Africa (especially Dragon Rouge, the rescue of Belgian hostages in Stanleyville, Congo), Southeast Asia (where it was a mixed bag), Morocco (where it proved costly to prosecute), the Falklands (where it had but limited impact), the Iran-Iraq war (where BAI predominated), and Afghanistan (where it first worked well and then fell apart in the face of the growing shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile [SAM] threat).4
2. BAI operations have always been of more value--as well as more extensive-than CAS operations. By its very nature, CAS tends to be used only in extremes. Even a cursory analysis of battlefield-air-support operations from World War I onwards indicates that BAI has been the more dominant and prevalent. In limited-war situations, particularly in the absence of maneuver or high-tempo combat, CAS has been more frequently employed, but even here it is often surprising how few sorties are actually devoted to the CAS mission. For example, an analysis of Air Force sorties in South Vietnam through October 1966 revealed that only 3 percent were devoted to CAS missions; as one Air Force historian subsequently wrote, "many" others fell into "a gray area between those missions that were clearly close air support in the traditional sense and those that would formerly have been called interdiction."5 Interestingly, this gray area was termed direct support, a BAI euphemism dating to British experience in World War II.
BAI operations clearly have been more useful in their impact upon maneuver land battle; the blitzkrieg, Western Desert campaign, Italian campaign, breakout across France, and epic air-land battles of the Russian front in 1943-45 were essentially campaigns where BAI predominated. Luftwaffe planners emphasized assaulting second-echelon forces, beginning in the latter stages of the Spanish civil war and continuing into the Second World War. So did the Voyenno Vozdushnye Sily (VVS--the Soviet army air forces). Both services blended CAS operations at the front with more numerous second-echelon attacks to a depth in excess of 30 kilometers behind the front. During the Normandy landings and the subsequent consolidation phase, BAI by fighters and tactical bombers seriously hampered the arrival of German forces on the battlefield. British and American armored-column cover operations in support of the breakout and pursuit of German forces across France varied between CAS and BAI, but many were more clearly BAI operations, well beyond the range of friendly ground forces. Finally, the twin battles of Mortain and the Falaise-Argentan "Gap" were primarily Army Air Forces (AAF)-RAF combined-force BAI attacks; they had a devastating impact upon German forces. In the postwar years, there was little opportunity to examine battlefield air support in the high-tempo environment of a fluid, mechanized, total war; nevertheless, the few cases that do exist offer confirmatory evidence that BAI played a larger and more significant role than CAS. These cases include the 1956, 1967, and 1973 Middle East wars as well as the tedious Iran-Iraq war (where the Iranians tended to follow American--e.g., US Air Force--patterns and the Iraqi Air Force substituted French tactics for Soviet ones).6
This discussion is not intended to denigrate CAS or to imply that there is no need for it; however, its use typically reflects more desperate or peculiar circumstance--such as the fighting at "Bloody Ridge" on Guadalcanal in 1942; "Hellzapoppin Ridge" on Bougainville in 1943; the Naktong and Chosen Reservoir fighting in 1950; outpost, column, and hamlet defense in Indochina and South Vietnam; and siege breaking at Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh (one successful and one not). In all of these cases, CAS substituted for the lack of available artillery assets and often offset huge force disparities between opposing sides. But, as a rule, when mobile forces join combat (particularly in open country) BAI is employed more frequently--and decisively--than CAS.7
3. With rare exception, the strategic bomber has been of minimal value in battlefield air support. The notion of the strategic bomber majestically sweeping across a battlefield and releasing a hail of bombs has always had a certain glamour to it, but the peculiarities of strategic bomber operations have greatly limited its effectiveness. These include the need for establishing a bomber stream of some sort, the greater vulnerability of this kind of aircraft to enemy ground and air defenses, and the much greater coordination requirements for successful strikes. Preinvasion B-17 and B-24 bombing strikes against Omaha Beach on the morning of the Normandy landings did little to dent coastal defenses; far more valuable were the 36 Allied fighter-bomber squadrons providing CAS to landing forces and the 33 others flying BAI missions further inland. Operation Cobra, undertaken immediately prior to the Saint-Lo breakthrough on 24-25 July 1944, illustrated both the strengths and weaknesses of using strategic bombers for CAS missions. It achieved its desired effect, devastating the Panzer-Lehr division opposite the American VII Corps, but faulty planning, sloppy execution, and ill luck resulted in friendly casualties from errant bombing that killed over 100 GIs, wounded approximately 500 others, and triggered bitter exchanges between air and ground commanders. This acrimony was due in part to the fact that one of the dead was Lt Gen Lesley J. McNair, "commander" of the phantom "lst Army Group." At the end of the war, Gen Omar Bradley's 12th Army Group rated fighter-bombers as particularly valuable for troop support but was noticeably cooler towards medium bombers and, particularly, "heavies." The group's attitude was that heavy bombers had the potential to be devastatingly effective but were prone to generate friendly casualties and thus necessitate the establishment of large safety zones between friendly and enemy forces--constraints not conducive to good post-strike exploitation of a battered foe.8
Post-World War II operations have been equally mixed. B-29s flow in a battlefield-air-support role (particularly at night, using radar bombing) for allied forces in Korea and seem to have had little actual impact upon the ground situation, despite occasional statements to the contrary. The French unsuccessfully sought intervention by atomic-bomb-equipped B-29s during the debacle at Dien Bien Phu; the British employed Lincoln bombers against the Mau Mau in Kenya (without notable success); and it fell to the United States to demonstrate that developments in precision guidance and control techniques, when coupled with a static situation, could result in profitable support of ground forces by B-52s during the siege of Khe Sanh. It is worth noting, however, that all of these operations (whether undertaken or not) fell far more under the rubric of BAI than of CAS and were undertaken in conflicts where both air and ground commanders greatly preferred to employ smaller, more agile, and operationally flexible aircraft--notably the fighter-bomber.9
4. "Classic" air interdiction has proven disappointing and of less significance than either BAI or CAS; its impact upon battle-field operations is questionable, particularly when it is not synchronized with ground maneuver warfare. Four examples exist from four separate conflicts that call into question the efficacy of non-BAI interdiction: Operation Strangle (Italy, 1944); Operations Strangle and Saturate (Korea, 1951-52); French interdiction efforts against Vietminh supply lines, 1952-54; and the long and arduous campaign against the Ho Chi Minh trail network over a decade later. Strangle in Italy never attained the degree of supply denial to German forces that its planners had hoped; as a purely "interdiction" effort, it failed. But strikes closer to the front undertaken during the subsequent Diadem phase did hamper German mobility near the line of engagement--another example of BAI effectiveness, as reflected in contemporary Nazi accounts and postwar memoirs.10 The same could not be said of Korea's Strangle, which, like its predecessor, attempted to pinch off supplies coming down a peninsula. There, road strikes resulted in little more than expensive earth moving at a prohibitive cost in killed and captured aircrews and lost or damaged strike aircraft. Saturate, its successor, targeted the North Korean rail network with somewhat better success but (given the nature of fighting at the front) still did not deny Communist forces the supplies necessary to continue fighting. An evaluation report, in fact, concluded that in January 1953 "the enemy was better supplied, fed, and equipped than at any previous time."11 In Indochina (subsequently Vietnam), planners did not even have the advantages of geography--attacking across a peninsula--and, hence, the problems of interdiction were much more severe. The French lacked resources to prosecute a campaign against supply routes from Communist China, and the introduction of increasingly intense antiaircraft assets resulted in unacceptable loss rates of strike and bomber aircraft. The successful capture of Dien Bien Phu was due in great measure to the successful transportation of large amounts of supplies and equipment. coupled with equally successful "air denial" of French ground-attack forces.12 In Vietnam, the paucity of resources that afflicted the French was not a serious problem for the United States and its allies. In theory, virtually the entire country was within 15 minutes of tactical air power coverage, and CAS/BAI operations worked generally well. But the diversity of route options enabled Communist forces to counteract the intense air campaign waged against them, and the increasing sophistication of their air defense resources led to nagging and continuous losses. Though air attack-undoubtedly reduced the amount of supplies that got down the trail, it never succeeded either in stopping the flow or in generating losses so extensive as to compromise the ability of the Vietcong to come to battle. What successes air power enjoyed against the Vietcong were achieved primarily via BAI and CAS, particularly when air action was synchronized with ground maneuver.13
5. The greatest recurring problem in battlefield air support has been affecting timely and accurate strikes with satisfactory communications, control, and coordination. Even in the First World War I, ground and air commanders complained about the problems of arranging and coordinating air support missions. Col William ("Billy") Mitchell, for example, went to great lengths to ensure the adequacy of communications and identification procedures in his preparations for the Saint-Mihiel offensive. Such problems continued in the postwar years. The British and French "air control" experiences highlighted continuing problems in this area; the French, in fact, utilized airborne radio-equipped observers who functioned essentially as forward air controllers (FACs) beginning as early as the Rif War of the 1920s in North Africa. Effective direct control procedures first appeared in the Spanish civil war, thanks to the work of the Legion Condor. Subsequently, during the Second World War, virtually all the major combatant nations developed particular air support procedures, to a greater or lesser extent constrained or enhanced by the particular air-army doctrine being followed. American procedures were profoundly influenced by the RAF's experience in the Western Desert. Even so, battlefield coordination and communication proved difficult. When the British first began their Western Desert campaign, the typical lag between a support request and the arrival of strike aircraft over the target was two and one-half to three hours. Needless to say, this tardiness vastly improved by war's end. (In Vietnam, the average time from the eruption of a firefight to the first delivery of CAS was over an hour, but analysis revealed that up to 40 minutes of this time was being lost by ground commanders delaying their request for air support.14)
Identification of and communication between friendly air and ground forces have posed continuing problems. Air strikes on friendlies were an all-too-common occurrence in the Second World War (and appeared in earlier and later wars as well, though not to the same degree); A-36 dive-bombers, supposedly "precision" weapons, proved notorious in this regard during the Sicilian campaign. But the Germans experienced it in Spain and in the blitzkrieg, as did the other Allies. Indeed, whenever a ground war is fast-moving and fluid, the number of friendly casualties from air action greatly increases. This principle unfortunately but understandably cultivates a mentality of "if it flies and is heading our way, shoot at it," which adds to the fratricide problem. Saturation of communications networks, problems with communications security, and the inability of air and ground forces to talk on a common network have likewise posed long-standing headaches. Examples abound from every war. In the Second World War, for example, German air-ground operations as late as 1943-44 suffered from the lack of a single radio capable of handling air and ground message traffic. The opening months of the Korean War were as notable for the problems encountered in communications between the various services as they were for the dismaying rapidity of the North Korean advance. Further, these communications difficulties seriously hampered the quality of CAS and BAI "target servicing." Vietnam's early days were characterized by a similar problem afflicting FAC operations. Indeed, the FAC concept, which had worked so well in Korea, had to be rediscovered and restructured, initially using Army O-ls transferred to the Air Force. Discussions with a wide range of Army and Air Force officers indicate that significant reservations about the efficacy of contemporary battlefield communication capabilities remain. Worse, the "experience" of recent joint Army-Air Force training exercises confirms that these feelings are not without considerable foundation.15
6. Troops exposed to air attack experience serious psychological and morale damage that hinders their subsequent combat performance. Ironically, civilian populations exposed to bombardment appear to have strong resistance to morale breakdown, whereas fit, young fighting men attacked on the battlefield often experience a shattering of morale that is out of proportion to the actual strength of the attack. Experience indicates, as would be expected, that this phenomenon is particularly true of troops encountering air attack for the first time. Numerous accounts from the First World War, interwar conflicts, Second World War, and postwar conflicts attest to this aspect of air attack. Noise appears to have a particular value as a "shock weapon" against troops. The shock value of a genuinely severe battlefield bombardment--such as the Cobra bombing--is not surprising. What is surprising, however, is how even a relatively insignificant strafing or two can tie up vast quantities of troops even when their own air force has unquestioned air superiority and is devastating the foe. (Such was the case with the Germans at Sedan [France] and to American forces after D-day). That the Soviets are concerned about the impact of air attack on morale is evident from the recent comments of a Soviet infantry-training platoon commander.16 As a rule, armies traditionally fear an enemy air force more than they respect their own. In contemporary discussions with "ground" and "air" people--regardless of the country--the ground officers generally have little faith in the abilities of their own air force to prevent an enemy air force from devastating them and to undertake any sort of equally devastating attack upon enemy ground forces. In sum, they overemphasize the anticipated effectiveness of the enemy air force, both in defending its own airspace and in projecting power across the front, and they minimize the ability of their own air force(s) to defend them from enemy attack and to conduct meaningful CAS/BAI against the enemy.
7. The ground-to-air environment has always posed an ever-increasing threat to battlefield air operations. Even in the First World War, battlefield attack missions took a high toll of attacking aircraft, particularly as troops became seasoned and learned to fire back. During the battle of Cambrai (France), for example, ground-attack mission loss rates never dropped below 30 percent, resulting in the essential destruction of a fighter squadron in four days. Understandably, pilots expressed a marked preference for dogfighting, believing that it significantly enhanced their chances of survival. The proliferation of light flak in the world's armies by the end of the 1930s had a drastic impact upon subsequent CAS and BAI operations. Light flak took a high toll of ground-attack aircraft during the Spanish civil war, and, during the blitzkrieg, German light flak devastated low-level attackers, particularly in the Polish and French campaigns. Of course, later in the war, the Allies had their own opportunity to suppress enemy air attack, and the combination of radar-directed antiaircraft artillery (AAA) coupled with proximity-fused shells down to sizes as small as 40 millimeters (mm) was of particular value.17
The ground-to-air threat environment increased in severity in the postwar years. Though conflicts such as Korea and Indochina were characterized as "limited," they nevertheless took a high toll of aircraft. For example, in April 1951 the Navy and Marine Corps lost 33 aircraft primarily on CAS/BAI missions from light and medium AAA and small-arms fire. During the siege of Dien Bien Phu, the Vietminh moved in heavy antiaircraft artillery formations and succeeded in inflicting air denial upon the French; by May 1954, just before the collapse, French fighters and bombers (let alone transports and liaison airplanes) could not operate over the valley without taking prohibitive losses.18 American fixed-wing aircraft losses in Southeast Asia (SEA), while not large in the context of the entire SEA air effort, were certainly not inconsequential, and the introduction of the shoulder-fired SAM during the 1972 North Vietnamese spring offensive added a new problem for tactical air planners. Whereas previously in limited wars air attackers could rely on older generations of warplanes or even light propeller-driven trainers converted as "strike" and FAC airplanes, the enhanced SAM threat essentially drove such aircraft--including the fabled Douglas A-1--from the sky. The 1973 Middle East war highlighted the deadly synergy of fixed-base and shoulder-fired SAMs coupled with traditional AAA and radar-directed multiple-barrel light flak. Out of an estimated 109 aircraft lost by the Israeli Air Force (IAF) during the October war, 61 were lost on close support. During operations early in the war, the IAF had to rely on artillery suppression of enemy SAM defenses to allow its strike aircraft to operate over the Golan Heights. The daunting efficiency of ground defenses cut both ways; Israeli gunners shot down an estimated 101 Arab aircraft that were attacking troop positions--23 falling to SAMs and 42 to 20-mm ground fire.19
More recently, experiences in Angola and Mozambique, in Morocco's Polisario guerrilla war, in the Falklands (Islas Malvinas), and in Afghanistan have further confirmed the danger that the SAM poses to attackers--particularly the small SA-7-/Redeye-/Blowpipe-/Stinger-class weapon. Stinger wallahs of the Afghani resistance inflicted air denial upon the Soviets. Thus, they defeated a combined-arms Soviet air-mobile system using fixed- and rotary-wing support and reversed a Soviet air superiority that had permitted attacks against the Mojahedin virtually at will. Allegedly, from September 1986 to mid-1987, the Soviets lost an average of one airplane or helicopter per day to Afghani air defenders. In any future high-intensity war, preventing attrition of one's forces by air-to-air and ground-to-air threats will be a serious challenge to air commanders. Ground-to-air threats--including fratricide from "friendly" fire--will obviously continue to pose a major headache for battlefield-air-support planners. Indeed, the era of some aspects of battlefield air support-such as the orbiting FAC--are probably gone forever.20
8. The fighter-bomber has always performed more satisfactorily in the CAS/BAI role than the special-purpose attack airplane. The fighter-bomber possesses the intrinsic performance, flexibility, and safety to perform the CAS/BAI mission better than more specialized attack aircraft. Both the fighter and the attack airplane appeared in the "Great War," and the performance disparity between them was slight. By war's end, as discussed earlier, the bomb-carrying fighter had appeared as an element of ground-attack warfare. After World War I, the performance disparities, size, and complexity of the specialized attack airplane grew so large that by 1939 such craft were decidedly at a disadvantage to the fighter for the CAS/BAI mission. During that time, the ground-attack airplane had generally evolved into a twin-engine machine almost indistinguishable from contemporary medium bombers or, on the other hand, the specialized dive-bomber. Both proved vulnerable to opposing fighters and the intense low-level flak that increasingly accompanied ground forces, just as both were incapable of undertaking the kind of "swing-role" missions that fighters could. By war's end, both the Allied and Axis powers expressed a clear preference for the modified fighter-bomber (such as the P-47, Typhoon, FW-190G, and Yak-7B) for battlefield ground attack. In the United States' case, this superiority was recognized not merely by the AAF, but by the Army ground forces as well. In the postwar years, even the Soviet Union, which had operated specialized Shturmovik (assault) aircraft since the 1920s, abandoned them in favor of the jet fighter-bomber, beginning with the Su-7 Fitter.21
It is ironic, then, that the 1970s witnessed the reintroduction of the "attack" airplane in US service--the A-10. It represented a return to an older philosophy of battlefield air power discredited by the experiences of the Second World War. Borne of a limited war need--replacement of the older A-1--the A-10 was, in one respect, an exasperated response to congressional pressure to pacify the ground forces. Specifically, ground forces claimed they needed an up-to-date, heavily armored, long-loiter, high-payload bomb dropper, built without regard to other issues such as swing-role missions and survivability against sophisticated air-to-air and ground-to-air threats. Even at the time of its creation, it had questionable survivability in a high-intensity war characterized by multiple air-to-air and ground-to-air threats. The current debate over the CAS/BAI mission, the intense interest in upgrading aircraft such as the A-7 and the A-10, and defense reform movement cries for a "mud fighter" all reflect the confusion that continues to plague the acquisition of "attack" aircraft. A far better approach than creating retreads and such potential enemy ace makers as the proposed "mud fighter" is the fighter-bomber, which has worked since World War I. And in this respect, it is immaterial whether such aircraft have an "A" designation, such as the A-16 variant of the F-16 or the A-18 half of the F/A-18. In previous decades we recognized that fighters had a dual-role nature; we didn't distinguish between "P"-47s and "A"-47s, nor between "F"-84s and "A"-84s. Neither should we do so today, because making such distinctions helps fuel the belief that there is something inherently desirable in a specialized attack aircraft for battlefield air support--a questionable notion indeed. (Political realities, however, favor such separate designations; having an "A" airplane clearly speaks of an air service's commitment to its ground partners.) The swing-role fighter is just that--capable air-to-ground and air-to-air airplane. Differentiating further can lead to dangerous dichotomy of thought between air-to-air and air-to-ground warfare. Rather than arguing over "F" or "A" airplanes, planners should be addressing more significant topics, such as the desirability of incorporating vertical and/or short takeoff and landing (VSTOL) technology on future fighter-bombers in light of the historic vulnerability of airfields to air-denial attack.22
9. CAS and BAI have demonstrated a tremendous beneficial synergy. Examples abound where effective CAS and BAI, working together, have had a devastating effect over the battlefield, particularly in situations where air power has been able to offset disparities between opposing forces on the ground. In US experience, the best examples are drawn from Korea and Southeast Asia. In Korea, the disparate nature of Air Force and Navy-Marine CAS actually seems to have furnished more complete battlefield coverage than if any one system had predominated. The Navy-Marine; system emphasized air support within 50-200 yards (45-183 meters), with air support substituting for the lack of artillery. The Air Force envisioned CAS as seldom required closer than 1,000 yards (914 meters). Although great controversy erupted over which CAS system was better, what too often was (and is) missed is that both worked together quite effectively, with the Air Force system furnishing more of the BAI side and the Navy-Marine system more of the true CAS side. Starting in the fall of 1952, the Navy's Cherokee strikes together with a series of Air Force "air-pressure" strikes resulted in intense US Air Force-US Navy BAI operations that did much to hamper Communist tactical mobility and eliminate the supplies that North Korean and Chinese Communist forces had been able to accumulate behind the front. This effort, when coupled with "traditional" CAS applied directly over the front in support of allied forces, helped prevent the loss of territory prior to the signing of the truce agreement in late July 1953. At Khe Sanh, intensive US Air Force-Navy-Marine Corps CAS/BAI strikes prevented a repeat of the Dien Bien Phu experience and, indeed, enabled Khe Sanh to accomplish what the French at Dien Bien Phu had tried and failed to achieve: create a magnet for the attraction, concentration, and destruction of enemy forces. Massive and sustained CAS/BAI strikes, in conjunction with desperate ground fighting, blunted and then defeated North Vietnam's 1972 spring offensive.23
10. CAS/BAI experience from limited wars has only limited relevancy to high-intensity conflict. This observation, of course, is actually a subsidiary conclusion of a larger one: limited wars themselves can have but limited relevancy to larger and more intensive conflicts. The benign environment (benign compared to high-tempo, multiple-threat modern war) of a limited war generates its own dangerous limitations on thought and analysis. CAS/BAI operations in such conflicts tend to be more static in nature and not characterized by the loss rates, fog of war, and operational constraints imposed in a high-intensity war where every significant aspect of military operations is usually up for grabs or in question for much of the time. In older wars--Indochina, Algeria, Vietnam, Africa, for example--such conditions were also conducive to the operation of older, less sophisticated aircraft. Since the early 1970s, however, the rapid proliferation of effective ground-to-air weapons has required that modern support aircraft for these "brushfire" conflicts be almost as sophisticated as those intended for, say, a NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict on the central front. Nevertheless, limited wars-despite the changing nature of technology-usually have a set of other conditions that makes them largely irrelevant to more extensive conflicts. For example, there may be "sanctuary" issues; there is usually only one side that has/uses air power; there is a conscious desire to minimize casualties and collateral damage; and so forth. To consider what is more typical of high-intensity war, one should look to the last extensive high-intensity conflict: the Second World War, particularly the eastern and western front campaigns of 1943-45.24
11. Nighttime CAS/BAI has been the most difficult and frustrating form of CAS/BAI to employ and has proven less significant than daytime operations. Denying an enemy the ability to move freely at night has been one of the most elusive goals of military planners.25 Unsurprisingly, all-night air attack--and not just CAS/BAI operations--has posed severe challenges. Attempts to undertake what are now considered night CAS/BAI missions occurred during the First World War, but, even so, night battlefield air attack remained more harassment than "serious" air war until the Second World War. During the Normandy campaign, the RAF used Mosquito bombers as night interdictors, bombing under illumination from Mitchell flare ships; as the threat from German night attackers dwindled in 1944-45, the AAF used modified P-61 night fighters for the same purpose. The Germans established specialized night ground-attack formations though their actual combat contribution appears to have been minimal. The VVS flew night harassment missions using modified trainers (largely crewed by women), presaging similar operations by the North Koreans during the Korean War.
In Korea, US Air Force and Navy aviators undertook extensive night interdiction and CAS operations. While such activity took a heavy toll of Korean road and rail traffic, casualties were high from combat losses and operational accidents. (At one point, Fifth Air Force's director of operations, Col George S. Brown, complained of "'trading B-26's for trucks in a most uneconomical manner.'"26) Night attackers typically flew single and multiship sorties, attacking under flares dropped by transports or patrol bombers. They sometimes attacked CAS targets using blind bombing from radar beacons, illumination from battlefield searchlights, or cues from tracer reference firing from friendly positions.
In Indochina, the French found that the night effectively cloaked Vietminh forces from air attack. Vietnam featured extensive night operations, which were both a help and hindrance to air attackers. In the early days of the war, darkness protected aircraft from antiaircraft fire; thus, such aircraft as the B-26, T-28, and AC-47/AC-119/AC-130 could operate with relative impunity. The night was an enemy, however, in that it hid the Vietcong from air observers, challenging the development of advanced sensor systems to permit detection of the foe. Eventually, the steady escalation of the enemy ground-to-air threat endangered operations by aircraft such as the lumbering gunships and necessitated complicated escort and suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) procedures. Night air attack in Vietnam offered a mixed bag of results. On the one hand, particularly during the early days of the war when US ground forces were few and the Vietcong posed a greater challenge to hamlet defenders than they did later, air attack at night sometimes played a critical role in permitting a hamlet's defenders to hold out until daylight, when the Vietcong would typically break contact. On the other hand, effectiveness of night CAS/BAI was limited by difficulties locating the enemy, increasing vulnerability of night attackers to ground defenses, disorientation problems traditional in night attack (particularly in mixed cloud and clear conditions), terrain-avoidance problems, and operational problems with the aircraft themselves (such as visibility from the cockpit, momentary flash blindness from weapon firing, lack of sufficient cockpit navigational and situational aids, and the like).
With this record from several wars, it is understandable why there is such interest in successfully prosecuting night and all-weather CAS/BAI/deep-interdiction attacks via advances in technology. One such system is low-altitude night targeting infrared navigation (LANTIRN), intended for the F-15E and F-16. Any future CAS/BAI aircraft will of necessity be expected to operate day and night and in adverse weather. Whether or not we will be able to reverse a historic record of less-than-satisfactory night CAS/BAI operations remains, of course, to be seen--but we probably should not realistically expect to achieve identical accuracies or overall efficiencies comparable with daytime CAS/BAI employment, though the attempt to achieve such goals is a most laudable one.
A review of the above points leads to two questions: (1) How realistic is it to expect that we can continue to undertake the kind of CAS/BAI operations that have characterized air-land warfare in the past? and (2) What are the future prospects for "traditional" deep interdiction? These are two issues that require much more attention than can be given here, but the following closing thoughts are offered in the spirit of healthy dialogue. It is realistic to expect that there will be a continuing need for the application of battlefield air power, but it is questionable whether the returns from CAS missions warrant the expenditure of scarce aircrews and aircraft. This statement should not be interpreted as a callous denial of the ground forces' need for air support. That need historically has best been met with BAI, not CAS. If CAS is what desperate circumstances dictate, so be it, at whatever cost is judged acceptable. But both air and ground commanders must recognize that in any future high-intensity war, the aircraft and airmen frittered away one day on missions of dubious value will not be available for use the next day for missions that may be truly necessary. Finally, aircraft employed on "traditional" interdiction missions may well be much more valuable operating in a BAI mode rather than a deep-strike one. The traditional fixed nature of deep-interdiction targets--road and rail intersections, bridges, facilities, and the like--is such that these may prove far better targets for autonomous smart or "brilliant" weapons such as cruise missiles, standoff missiles, unmanned air vehicles, and so forth. Certainly, history indicates the great degree to which these targets become flak traps. If deep interdiction by piloted aircraft is genuinely requited, then it may best be undertaken by low-observable systems. Thus, it may well be in the Air Force's best interest to rethink its prioritizing of air missions so as to place BAI on a higher priority level than deep interdiction and to relegate CAS to a lower priority level, consistent with the recognition of its use only in extremis. A suitable rank ordering would thus be as follows: (1) air superiority, (2) BAI, (3) deep strike, and (4) CAS. Now, in an all-out war involving nuclear weapons--particularly nuclear exchanges between the superpowers--all of this goes out the window; likewise, Washington's political realities may dictate otherwise.
In conclusion, this article has attempted to examine the issue of close air support and battlefield air interdiction from a variety of perspectives. It has not been intended as the last word on or a definitive accounting of the CAS/BAI experience. It will have served its purpose if it generates an increased dialogue between those individuals within the operational, planning, doctrine, and acquisition communities who are, even now, confronting the challenge of future CAS/BAI warfare.
Richard P. Hallion (PhD, University of Maryland) is executive historian, Advanced Projects Office, Headquarters Air Force Systems Command, Andrews AFB, Maryland. Formerly, he was a curator at the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C.; chief historian of the Air Force Flight Test Center, Edwards AFB, California; and director of a special staff office for the Aeronautical Systems Division, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. Dr Hallion taught at the Army War College during 1987-88 as the Harold Keith Johnson Visiting Professor at the Military History Institute.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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