The Army’s Quest for its Own CAS – Part 1

Earlier Esli made a very astute comment as to what the ground commander needs for fixed winged Close Air Support (CAS):

1. emphasis on CAS within USAF or change the service proponency of the mission
2. operate a/c from rough or austere fields; the same places US Army aviation already operates, and the USMC at least says it is willing to do. (And does in Iraq.)
3. Buy the aircraft, develop appropriate weapons and TTPs, and transition the pilots.

His points are on target, in my humble opinion.  Indeed, I uttered similar observations in the past – particularly advocating for the Army to attain a true fixed-wing CAS capability.  Further, I’d wager if one searched through the archives … say… back to 1953… the same or at least a similar list existed, also penned by veteran combat arms officers in the aftermath of the Korean War.

The Army left the Korean War with pile of lessons learned (or re-learned), and a fixed winged aircraft inventory featuring the Cessna L-19 “Bird Dog” (later designated the O-1 under the tri-service designation system).

Cessna L-19 O-1 Bird Dog__3143

Simple and rugged, the Cessna design continued the basic high-winged, STOL and rough field capable aircraft dating back to World War II.  The “Bird Dogs” served well as liaison and observation platforms.  But the only real “payload” carried were light arms or marking rockets.  During the Korean War the use of airborne artillery observation posts became much more dangerous as jet aircraft made their presence known.   While the Cessna birds were fine for light work like the observation and fire direction tasks, the Army sought something better – that might actually fight back.

At the same time complaints about CAS procedures in Korea began echoing around the Army’s higher ranks.  In some minds the solution was, harkening back to World War II, an Army controlled “tactical air command” assigned to field armies.  After all, the Marines maintained their organic fixed-wing CAS capability.  But within the framework of the Department of Defense, the Army lacked the authority to form such organic capabilities.  And the Air Force was at the time preoccupied with strategic bombing, tactical nuclear strike, and air defense.  The Pace-Finletter Memorandum of Understanding (1952) limited the Army to fixed-wing aircraft under 5000 pounds and only for specific roles.  But the Army could operate helicopters with very few technical restrictions, and began exploring those options.

So through the mid-1950s, the Army worked to improve and make the most of rotary-winged aircraft of the day.  But even that hit a brick wall in 1956 when Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson further delineated the role and restrictions on Army aviation.  Retaining the 5000 pound limit on fixed-wing, Wilson added a 20,000 pound limit on helicopters.  He further limited Army aviation to four roles:

  • liaison and communications
  • observation, artillery spotting, and topographical survey
  • forward area airlift (both cargo and personnel)
  • medical evacuation

Wilson expressly denied the Army any role in CAS. Not only did this quell ideas about fixed wing Army attack jets, it also slowed the development of attack helicopters as the “air cavalry” concept matured.

However, under the guise of communications support and observation roles, the Army could operate forward air control (FAC) aircraft in a limited capacity.  If policy prevented the Army from purchasing attack aircraft, at least the service could field FACs that might pace the Air Force’s fighter-bombers.  While not “on the books” as attack aircraft, perhaps such jet powered FACs might toss a few bombs and eventually evolve into a CAS asset.  Towards that end, the Army tested three Cessna T-37 trainers in 1958-9.

Cessna T-37

The T-37, of course, was just entering Air Force service as a jet trainer at the time (and served in that role up to 2009!).  Tests impressed the Army.  But of course they were comparing the “Tweety Bird” to the old prop planes.  And the type did weigh under 5000 pounds empty.  Needless to say, the Air Force didn’t like this in the least.  So the Army returned the T-37s to the Air Force  (and bear in mind the Air Force later used the A-37 derivative in Vietnam, perhaps proving the wisdom of the Army’s tests).  But the proverbial camel’s nose was under the tent.

Over the next five years, the Army proceeded down three, somewhat distinct, paths in the effort to secure fixed-wing combat aircraft.  Please allow me the liberty of discussing those different courses in detail over a series of posts.


10 thoughts on “The Army’s Quest for its Own CAS – Part 1”

  1. I remember the L-19 at Helena MT, both at the airport and Fort William Henry Harrison. The Montana Guard had a large aviation company in the sixties and included the Beaver!
    But is was not a close support mission but a liaison role……..this was when I was nine to eleven, OK! So the memory may be a bit cloudy!

    Linked at Among The Joshua Trees.

  2. Imma let you finish (honest!) but I found an old video on the XH-51 and AH-56.

    Craig’s gonna write about the other fixed wing CAS aircraft the Army looked at, but realize that at the same time, the Army worked to lift the restriction on arming helicopters, and also put a lot of effort into trying to get fixed wing performance out of rotary winged aircraft.

    The Army’s frustrations with the Air Force’s provision of CAS is longstanding.

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