At the end of the last post on Army close air support (CAS) developments from the early 1960s, I mentioned one last attempt by the Army to secure an organic fixed-winged CAS capability. This effort occurred concurrently with the vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) tests, but had strong political backing.
To some degree, the Army’s tests with fast forward air control (FAC), attack jets, and VTOL from 1960 onward were spurred by interest from President John F. Kennedy to improve the arm’s capability in mid- and low-intensity conflicts. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara became a strong proponent for army aviation, as he factored ways to increase mobility and potency of the conventional forces. McNamara merged two schools of thought with regard to Army aviation – those calling for more helicopters and those who wanted improved fixed-wing assets. The former, involving the genesis of the airmobile concept, deserves full treatment in another post. Regarding the later, I’ve given a cursory overview of the Army’s experiments with armed fixed-wing aircraft, but keep in mind also the procurement of some very capable theater transports in the time period.
In 1962, McNamara created a “Tactical Mobility Requirements Board” under Lieutenant General Hamilton Howze. Commonly referred to as the “Howze Board,” the board’s main focus soon became air mobility. As part of the airmobile concept, the Howze Board explored ways to use both rotary- and fixed-wing platforms to provide direct support. Keep in mind that man of the jet-turbine powered helicopters (such as the UH-1, just entering service in the early 1960s, so board members viewed that platform with potential, but had to consider the limitations of the airframes on hand. But in 1962, the Army did have quantities of a short take-off and landing (STOL) observation plane with a weapons capability.
The Grumman OV-1 Mohawk came from a joint service project. At the time the Army needed a replacement for the Cessna O-1 Bird Dog observation aircraft, and added the need for sophisticated sensor payloads (infa-red and radar in particular). The Navy and Marines also wanted an observation plane, but required an armament payload. After several years of design work, the Marines dropped from the project with concerns for the elaborate electronics packages associated with the sensors. Air Force pressure made the Army drop any armament requirements. So when the type first entered production in October 1959, the OV-1 was an unarmed observation plane… that happened to retain all the necessary “plumbing” to be armed.
For those not familiar with the Mohawk, the aircraft possessed incredible rough field operating abilities. Early Mohawks nearly reached 300 mph, but its empty weight of 11,000 pounds required a waiver to pass the Pace-Finletter memo restrictions. And of course with that waiver, the Air Force insisted the OV-1 should not carry weapons – despite operating over the combat zone and possessing the ability to carry 3,200 pounds of external stores!
When Howze Board issued its recommendations (some sources say fall 1962), it projected a requirement for 24 fixed-wing attack aircraft in the airmobile divisions, 8 in each conventional division, and additional numbers in “separate aviation brigades.” Of the aircraft available for this role, the board eyed the OV-1’s neglected weapons capability. As the board’s findings circulated among decision makers, the Army secured approval for a “concept demonstration” of the enhanced airmobile concept, which would include Mohawks flying CAS. Working with a team of Navy experts, the Army outfitted OV-1s to drop delayed fuse 1000 pound bombs using the two hard-points on the production aircraft. Although very successful, the Air Force eyed the development with suspicion.
Encouraged, the Army sent fifty-four OV-1As back to Grumman for installation of six underwing pylons, sights, and other equipment to facilitate the CAS mission. Re-designated JOV-1A, the armed Mohawks carried .50-caliber machine gun pods, rockets (either 2.75- or 5-inch), 500 pound bombs, and flares. Just like that, the Army had its fixed-wing CAS.
With the involvement in Vietnam becoming more and more important, the Army sent six JOV-1As with the 23rd Special Warfare Aviation Detachment to Southeast Asia for operational tests. With supportive and vocal responses from the field, the Army soon dispatched more armed Mohawks to Vietnam. This move met with support again from McNamara, who felt any aircraft in the combat zone should be armed. While somewhat fuzzy, the video here captures some of those armed Mohawks in operation. Check out the crew loading the rockets:
But this proved to be the gilded hour of Army fixed-wing CAS. By 1965, the Air Force had enough of the tests, demonstrations, and operational deployments of armed Mohawks. Aside from the Army butting into the airspace with armed planes, the Army was also calling for more pilots to support anticipated expansion of the force. The two services compromised with the Johnson-McConnell agreement in 1966. Under those terms, the Army gave up both organic fixed-winged CAS and theater transport. Not only did the Army give up the armed Mohawks, options on the “in the works” AV-8 Harrier, but also the most capable Caribou (CV-2 or C-7) and Buffalo (V-7 or C-8) transports. While the Air Force gained ascendency over the fixed-winged CAS role, the Army retained all options for rotary-winged attack, assault, and heavy transport.
Under these arrangements, the Army retained the armed UH-1 gunships then employed in Vietnam. The Army also proceeded with the Advanced Aerial Fire Support System (AAFSS), with the leading candidate being the Lockheed AH-56 Cheyenne. Calls from field commanders prompted the Army to procure an interim AAFSS, which came to be the Bell AH-1 Cobra. I’ve not seen such in writing, but the official designation of that helicopter, retaining the “1” of the Huey line, seemed a paper hedge against Air Force interference. In the end, the AH-56 proved too much, too fast, and the Cobras became the Army’s attack helicopter until replaced by the AH-64 Apache.
The Air Force, now “stuck” with the CAS role in a war that required “down and dirty” CAS, found its supersonic fighters insufficient for the job. Several interim types entered service to include the A-37 attack jet and the F-5A fighter, both tested by the Army in the search for CAS (other aircraft used included A/B-26 Invaders from World War II and A-1 Skyraiders from the Navy). The Air Force’s CAS role breathed life into the Light Armed Reconnaissance Aircraft (LARA) which eventually produced the Rockwell OV-10 Bronco. It also birthed the A-X requirement, issued in 1966, for a purpose built CAS aircraft to be flown by the Air Force in support of the Army. After a fly-off competition in 1972, the Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolt entered production.
And that brings us right up to the current state – the Army with an excellent rotary-winged attack helicopter, but dependent upon the Air Force for fixed-wing CAS. Only now the airframes have much more flight hours than anticipated and there is no replacement in sight.