World War I introduced the horrors of mechanized warfare with its unprecedented potential for human destruction. Four years of war decimated the populations of the European powers, accounting for as many as 10 million combatant deaths and about an equal number of civilian casualties. England and Germany both lost at least sixteen percent of their adult male populations to the war effort and left such a devastating emotional effect on those who survived the war that historians have often referred to them as "the lost generation (1).
Aviation was only eleven years old when war broke out in 1914, but the obvious military potential of aircraft inspired a tremendous acceleration in aviation technology during the next four years. Initially, the only practical use for the flimsy, underpowered balsa wood and fabric biplanes was aerial reconnaissance, which had previously been provided by hydrogen-filled dirigibles which were so vulnerable to enemy ground-fire that they generally remained tethered high above friendly territory where they provided ground commanders with photographic reconnaissance, safely out of enemy range.
Initially, winged aircraft were only employed for reconnaissance purposes, but entrepreneurial pilots sometimes dropped hand-held primitive explosives (and sometimes even bricks) onto enemy forces below. The Germans actually experimented with zeppelins, equipping them with internal bomb racks and conducting the first attempt at high altitude bombing, which were quickly abandoned as ineffective. Nevertheless, hundreds of British civilians were killed by these primitive weapons platforms and thousands more terrorized by the prospect of death from the sky and the concept of "total war," in which, for the first time in the history of warfare, civilian populations could be attacked directly from the air (2).
The machine gun accounted for most of the casualties in World War I trenches, so in very short time, it was also adapted for use in aircraft, but it remained too difficult to employ effectively as a tactical weapon until the Germans introduced the interrupter gear that enabled accurate forward firing through the propeller. By war's end, military aircraft had evolved to the point that squadrons of fast, nimble combat aircraft fought bitter duals to the death high above the battlefield. The British pioneered the development of maritime aircraft, even successfully deploying HMS Ark Royal (subsequently renamed
Pegasus), the world's first, albeit primitive, "aircraft carrier" in limited combat. (3) The first heavy bombers appeared during this period too, but the concept of combat air support specifically coordinating offensive tactical air power with ground force operations remained virtually non-existent until 1939 when the Nazis introduced the world to an even more frightening new form of warfare which they called blitzkrieg (4).
The Luftwaffe Introduces Tactical Combat Close Air Support:
Much of the human carnage inflicted on World War I combatants was attributed to the deployment of vast numbers of unprotected personnel against the devastating firepower of the machine gun. Millions of lives were sacrificed needlessly in campaigns characterized by repeated attempts to overwhelm defensive positions by sheer manpower and antiquated tactics that evolved in prior centuries when horse mounted cavalries still jousted to outflank each other. Military commanders on both sides persisted with obsolete battlefield tactics long after it should have been obvious they were utterly futile against the automatic, high caliber, rapid-fire technology deployed against them.
Between the world wars, Britain, France and most of the other European World
War I combatants reorganized their militaries and updated their tactics, using the costly lessons of the "Great War" to modernize their defensive philosophies and installations.
By the time international conflict and German expansionism led to the outbreak of another war in 1939, her adversaries were perfectly prepared to deploy their World War I-inspired strategies and equipment to protect their homelands.
While France prepared for trench warfare and invested her defensive hopes in the massive system of defensive installations and fixed artillery positioned along the Maginot
Line after World War I, Germany was turning out advanced combat aircraft and integrating them into ground attack forces and massive formations of heavily armored battle tanks. The tank had first been introduced by the British to break through German trenches in 1916, but while the United States was preoccupied, coping with the Great
Depression and the other European powers were downsizing their respective militaries after the "war to end all war," the Nazis were turning out vastly improved new battle tanks and combat aircraft by the thousands, in complete contravention of the Treaty of Versailles (5).
By the time they invaded Poland to initiate a Second World War in 1939, German
Panzer formations were completely integrated with forward deployed combat aircraft, communicating and coordinating attacks by radio. Polish skies were quickly swept of the obsolete, World War I-era aircraft of the Polish Air Force by Herman Goering's mighty
Luftwaffe, freeing the Junkers 87 "Stuka" for its primary intended purpose as a dive bomber. At the time, the tactical use of bombers was still impractical and ineffective, because accurate bombing was still impossible, except perhaps, under ideal conditions, prior to the development of gyroscopic bomb sites, introduced by the allies later in the war
6). Dive bombers, on the other hand, are ideal for offensive use, because they represent the equivalent of aerial artillery in their effect on the battlefield. Even more accurate than terrestrial artillery, dive bombers specialized in tank killing, particularly on the Eastern
Front where their attacks against Russian artillery battalions were coordinated by Panzer group commanders on the ground (7). The only limitation on the tactical use of combat aircraft in the fashion first introduced by the Nazi Luftwaffe in 1939 is that it requires absolute air superiority, which became clear, both in the skies over England in 1940, and later, in campaigns against the allies in North Africa (8).
The Evolution of Tactical Combat Air Support:
The allies caught on quickly to the value of tactical combat air support in ground offensives, but aircraft production was primarily dedicated to producing the heavy bombers necessary to destroy German industry and petroleum production. In light of the growing threat of German militarism, the United States began developing the P-40
Warhawk in 1937, intended as an all-purpose fighter with ground support capabilities (9).
The most advanced and powerful aircraft to see combat air support duty in World
War II was the North American P-51 Mustang, rushed into production in 1943, designed as a long-range fighter capable of escorting allied bomber formations operating deep within Germany. Prior to the Mustang's introduction, the losses inflicted by Luftwaffe interceptors such as the venerable Messerschmitt-109 on Allied bomber formations were so heavy that the daylight bombing campaign would probably have had to be suspended by the Allies in 1943 (10).
Ultimately, the P-51 established complete, unopposed air superiority over Germany, both directly, in confrontations with the ME-109's (and even a few squadrons of jet powered ME-262's), as well indirectly, by protecting the Allied bombers targeting the factories and ball bearing manufacturing plants that produced German aircraft. This freed P-51 pilots to assist Allied ground forces, strafing German counterattacking forces with it's six 50-caliber machine guns on D-Day, and later, firing state of the art air-to- ground wing-mounted rockets as American ground forces advanced toward Berlin (11).
By the end of the war, it was already clear that ground forces would likely never again be deployed without fully integrated, combat air support.
Modern Combat Air Support:
After World War II, the United States focused on perfecting the new science of jet propulsion in the development of advanced air superiority fighter/interceptors. When war broke out in Korea in 1950, the premier American combat aircraft were the F-86 Saber and the F-80 Shooting Star, its first operational combat aircraft, in service since 1945 (12).
Both platforms featured appropriate armament for configuration into combat air support roles, but especially in mountainous terrain, the extreme speed that enabled these powerful jet aircraft to fulfill their roles as air superiority fighter/interceptors proved an obstacle in many close air support roles. Retired P-51 Mustangs quickly took over most of the tactical support responsibilities, while high-performance fighter/interceptors battled Soviet
Mig-15 for air superiority in the skies over Korea (13).
In Vietnam, the United States employed various high performance fighters in tactical ground attack roles, such as F-100 Super Saber, in addition to sub-sonic, carrier based A-4 Skyhawks, and later, A-7 Corsairs and A-6 Intruders for ground attack and close air support. The conflict in Southeast Asia introduced the tactical use of helicopter gunships into close combat air support, in addition to their vital roles in troop transport.
By the Gulf War in 1991, the premier close air support platforms of the American
Armed Forces was the A-10 Thunderbolt, specifically designed around its massive rotary cannon, firing heavy 30mm rounds of depleted uranium shells, originally intended for use as a "tank buster" against massive Soviet Bloc armored divisions in Western Europe prior to the fall of the Soviet Union. The A-10 is now complemented by the AH-64 Apache…