Close air support

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Close air support to a patrol of American soldiers in the Iraq war

Close air support ( English close air support, CAS ), including close air support or Erdkampfunterstützung called in military affairs tactical missions of combat aircraft (or helicopter ) to directly support its own ground forces - troops in contact. Another operational method of the air forces is the battlefield lockdown ( English battlefield air interdiction, BAI ). For both application methods i. d. R. Attack aircraft or fighter-bombers used. These are kept ready at the combat room with a standard load of weapons. Bombers (including stealth bombers ) are rarely used. The planes are mostly with napalm - or other incendiary bombs , cluster bombs , cluster bombs or laser-guided bombs stocked and missiles. Their deployment is coordinated and directed by a Forward Air Controller (FAC).


First World War

The use of aircraft for close air support had its origins in World War I , the first significant use of aircraft for warfare . The initial dropping of small 25-pound bombs had less of a tactical effect than a psychological one. In contrast to artillery , aircraft are a visible enemy that poses a direct threat to enemy troops and gives your troops the assurance that their superiors are dealing with their situation.

Although combined air-to-ground missions did not come until the end of the First World War, many successful attacks between 1917 and 1918 already involved the coordination between air and land forces.

Sopwith 2F.1 (marine version)

The Royal Flying Corps and the United States Army Air Service viewed close air support as an additional order for their existing aircraft, such as the SE 5a and the Sopwith F.1 Camel , and did not develop any specialized units or equipment until a few months before the end of the war. Since the Anglo-American pilots lacked special training and their aircraft were relatively susceptible to fire, they suffered high losses when flying over enemy positions at low altitudes. So lost z. B. the No. 80 Squadron of the RAF 75% of their aircraft in the last 10 months of the war.

In contrast, the Germans and French developed special tactics, training and formations for close air support. The German Air Force modified the Junkers JI to protect against light handgun fire with additional armor on the cockpit. In the spring of 1918, the German Reich already had 18 specialized battle squadrons for bombing and shelling enemy troops at altitudes below 200 feet.

Between the wars 1918–1939

During the interwar period , different perspectives on the role of air forces in warfare emerged. Pilots and ground officers developed opposing views on the importance of close air support, which formed the basis of operations in the 20th century . During this phase a large number of conflicts arose, mainly the Spanish Civil War and the Second Sino-Japanese War , on the experience of which the states later involved in World War II based their strategy .

Pilots preferred a general independence from the army , which ruled out integration into the land forces and allowed the aircraft to operate as an independent armed force. They saw close air support as the most difficult and most inefficient form of aerial warfare, as such missions on the one hand require the identification and differentiation of one's own and enemy armed forces, and on the other hand attacked ground targets are distributed and camouflaged, which reduces the effectiveness of such attacks. Furthermore, such missions can also be carried out by the artillery , whereas air superiority is a unique skill.

Ground officers argued against it that artillery was sufficiently available and the flexibility of aircraft was more suitable for concentrated fire at critical points, also with regard to the psychological effect on own and enemy troops. In contrast to massive artillery fire, the relatively small air bombs can hardly affect the enemy's ability to move.

Second World War

The Second World War marked the turning point in the integration of air forces into combined warfare. Although the German Wehrmacht was in the lead with the Luftwaffe , by the end of the war all warring parties had developed effective air-to-ground combat techniques.

air force

Due to its central continental location and the intention of offensive operations, Germany could not ignore the need for close combat support. In joint exercises with Sweden in 1934, the Germans made their first experience with the tactic of dive-bombing, which achieved greater precision and made it difficult for anti-aircraft fire to fire on attacking aircraft.

Junkers Ju 87

Based on this experience, the head of German Air Force Development, General Aircraft Master Ernst Udet , initiated the tender for a dive fighter aircraft comparable to the American Curtiss Hawk II , from which the unique Junkers Ju 87 emerged . Experience from the Spanish Civil War led to the formation of five ground combat units in 1938, four of which were equipped with Stukas. The Luftwaffe adapted its defense procurement to the advances in air-ground coordination. General Wolfram von Richthofen organized detachments of the air force, which were directly subordinate to the ground units and passed on their requests for air support, but were not trained for the fire control of the air forces.

These preparations could not yet be proven during the attack on Poland in 1939, as the Air Force concentrated on the battlefield closure during Operation "Fall Weiss" and paid little attention to close air support. The effectiveness of the tactical aerial warfare was then demonstrated when crossing the Meuse during the western campaign in 1940 . General Heinz Guderian , one of the developers of combined arms combat and the Blitzkrieg , considered the constant bombardment of the French defense lines by ground attack aircraft as the best protection for the translating ground forces.

Although few guns were hit, the sustained air strike kept the French under fire and prevented the occupation of their weapons. The psychological effect of the dive fighters with their terrifying sirens ( Jericho trumpets ) was disproportionately greater than their actual destructive power. Confidence in air support and its preference over artillery simplified the logistical support during the advance through the Ardennes . Although there were some difficulties in coordinating the air force with the rapidly advancing ground forces, the Wehrmacht demonstrated its tactical superiority over the British and French defenders. Later, on the Eastern Front, the Wehrmacht used visible ground signals to mark the direction and distance from enemy units for the Luftwaffe.

Aside from these capabilities, German close air support was not without its problems and suffered from the same misunderstandings and rivalries between the military branches as the armed forces of other nations. For example, at the height of the Maas offensive, tank commander Heinz Guderian decided not to implement his plans for close air support and instead requested the bombardment of medium-weight bombers, which would have required the ground offensive to be halted until the bombing was over. However, the order was issued too late to be carried out, so that the plan originally agreed with Guderian was successfully implemented by the air force command.


With the exception of the A-36, a North American P-51 modified with air brakes , the United States Army Air Forces and Royal Air Force did not use any specialized aircraft for close air support. Instead, fighter jets and fighter-bombers like the Republic P-47 took on such tasks.

The A-10, a classic aircraft for battlefield lockdown and close air support

After 1945

Military helicopters were first used for close air support in the 1960s and 70s. Although helicopters were originally armed only for self-defense and had to protect the withdrawn troops, the importance of precisely this task led to the progressive upgrade of the helicopters to gunships . Although rotary-wing aircraft are slower than fixed-wing aircraft and significantly more susceptible to attack by air defense, helicopters can take optimal cover off-road and remain above the combat area for longer. Newly developed air-to-surface missiles increased the effectiveness and combat range of the helicopters and enabled them to fight tanks for the first time, as experience from the 1973 Yom Kippur War showed.

In the Vietnam War , the developed United States Air Force for close air support called gunships , upgraded to weapon carriers transport aircraft . The first aircraft of this type was the Douglas AC-47 Spooky , followed by the Fairchild AC-119 Shadow and Stinger and the Lockheed AC-130H Specter Gunship , which were also used in the Iraq war and the war in Afghanistan .

Used aircraft

Republic P-47
UH-1B Aerial Rocket Artillery
AC-130H Specter Gunship

Various aircraft are suitable for close air support. Military helicopters are often directly involved in ground operations, so most armed forces integrate their helicopter units directly into the army . Fighter-bombers and ground attack planes use missiles, bombs and machine gun fire against ground targets.

In the Second World War , the Luftwaffe initially used mainly dive-bomber aircraft for close air support. The nosedive enabled greater accuracy than area bombing and made target tracking more difficult for the air defense. The Junkers Ju 87 is an aircraft developed for this purpose. The low-wing aircraft was equipped with a wind-powered siren on its landing gear to increase the psychological effect.

In the 1960s and 70s, in addition to transport aircraft that had been converted into weapon carriers, military helicopters were also used for close air support. Although helicopters were originally only armed for self-defense and had to protect the withdrawn troops, the importance of precisely this task led to the progressive upgrade of helicopters to gunships . Although rotary-wing aircraft are slower than fixed-wing aircraft and significantly more susceptible to attack by air defense, helicopters can take optimal cover off-road and remain above the combat area for longer. Newly developed air-to-surface missiles increased the effectiveness and combat range of the helicopters and enabled them to fight tanks for the first time, as experience from the 1973 Yom Kippur War showed.

In the United States , the armored attack aircraft A-10 ("warthog") was created. The European NATO countries built a number of very similar ground attack aircraft, Germany and France relied on the Alpha Jet , Great Britain on the BAE Hawk . The Soviet counterpart was the Su-25 . The attack aircraft lost the more importance the more combat helicopters demonstrated their survivability and greater maneuverability in action. The fighter-bomber was also able to take over part of the tasks of the classic ground attack aircraft by means of precision-guided ammunition . Today also be multi-role combat aircraft used which cover the entire range of modern fighter aircraft and thus the special attack aircraft displace.

Nonetheless, recent conflicts have also shown the need for combat aircraft specially designed for close air support. The United States, for example, wants to keep its A-10 fleet in service until at least 2028 and has given its aircraft a complex overhaul from 2007 to 2011. Russia has sold the Su-25 to over 13 countries and developed it into the Su-39 . Inexpensive and easy-to-operate aircraft with propeller engines such as the A-29 Embraer EMB 314 are increasingly being used again .


  • Jonathan M. House: Combined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century . University Press of Kansas, Lawrence , Kansas 2001, ISBN 0-7006-1081-2 (American English).
  • Victor H. Krulak: First To Fight: An Inside View of the US Marine Corps . Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland 1984, ISBN 0-87021-785-2 (American English).

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