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7. Close Air Support

Close air support has been around since the early days of the aircraft in World War I. Although it has gone under other names, such as army cooperation, close cooperation, and ground support, every major country with an air force has tried it in some form. The Russians in World War II, for example, did little else and treated their air force as mobile artillery.111

At the other extreme, the Israelis, according to a recent commander of the Israeli Defense Forces, have shied away from close air support as a mission. The Israelis believe that teaching pilots to identify friends is too difficult; in any event, the mission is to identify and strike enemies.112

The Germans in World War II, at least after the Battle of Britain, tended to be more like the Russians, while the Americans tended more to the Israeli position.

Close Air Versus Interdiction

Close air support can look like interdiction, and vice versa. To help reduce the confusion, finding common areas of agreement and disagreement is useful. An air attack on enemy forces crossing the wire 50 yards from friendly troops, and controlled at least indirectly by the concerned ground commander, certainly is close air support. Just about everyone will agree that air attack on enemy troops within rifle range of friendly forces also is considered close air support. Similarly, just about everyone would agree that air attack on a tank factory is not. Clearly, substantial room is left between these two extremes.

Procedure might provide a basis for identification. One could say that aerial attack on anything within range of artillery would be close air support, because attacks on targets in that zone would require coordination with the ground commander. This answer is not completely satisfactory, however, because targets within artillery range -- say 20 miles -- possibly may have nothing to do with the current ground situation. Targets in this category might include airfields on which air combat fighters are located, radars used as part of the enemy early-warning system, or even enemy troops that happened to be moving laterally across that sector of the front. Procedure not only does not solve the problem, it expands the area of confusion. Another approach is needed.

Let us define close air support as any air operation that theoretically could and would be done by ground forces on their own, if sufficient troops or artillery were available. Under this definition, air strikes on troops crossing the wire certainly would fit the category. Aerial bombardment of the enemy line, preparatory to an offensive, also would fit, because artillery could do that job. Using air to hold a flank fits under the rubric of close air support, because an extra division or corps could be assigned flank-holding duties. Aerial attacks on enemy troops moving laterally across the front does not fit, however, because ground forces have no realistic way to deal with that kind of action (other than perhaps harassing fire of some sort). If an air action does not fall within this definition, for our purposes, it will be either interdiction or air superiority.

This definition may or may not agree with the definition currently in use in any particular army or air force. It is not important that it does. What is important is that air -- and ground -- commanders go through a mental exercise to differentiate between close air support and all other air operations. It is of more than theoretical importance that they do so.

Ground Commanders are in Charge

Ground commanders are basically in charge of close air support in the sense that they specify the targets. Naturally, ground commanders tend to concentrate on their immediate job, which is to advance on the ground or to prevent the enemy from doing so. If the definition of close air support becomes too broad, then these commanders in effect exercise control over great parts of the air forces. In fact, this very thing happened to the Luftwaffe on the Russian front, where the army monopolized air assets. Only in 1944, when it was too late, did the army recognize that interdiction would have been far more productive than close air support.113

It could be argued that the preceding discussion implies parochialism. It does, but not in a pejorative sense. Ground commanders and staff, at least at army level and below, tend to be vitally concerned with their immediate front -- as they should be. Similarly, political leaders at home can look at the movement of lines on a map and judge progress or lack thereof at the front. The measurable, obvious indications grip everyone, and the pressure to move lines on the map becomes inexorable.

Conversely, it is quite difficult during the course of a war to display the effect of interdiction operations that perhaps prevented enemy divisions from joining the battle. Almost until the end, it is hard to display and comprehend the impact of strikes against the enemy's petroleum industry or transport system.

The Air Force officer is trained to look at a different front. He thinks in terms of air superiority, soft spots in the petroleum system, transport net vulnerabilities, and opportunities to interdict divisions weeks away from commitment. Because of the mobility of his medium, he tends to look at greater expanses of space and time. In the process, however, he may relegate the movement of lines to a subsidiary part of the big picture. He may lose touch with the tangible flesh and blood of the front as he surveys his own domain, where casualties may be as high on the ground, but where the bodies are rarely seen -- and where no lines are drawn on a map.

Powerful forces are pulling the ground commander one way and the air commander another. If a rational air campaign is to be carried out -- whether for air superiority or interdiction, or both -- an air force must have freedom to do it. The air campaign, under some circumstances, may be far more important that the ground campaign. That never will come to be, however, if the definition of close air support, or the importance attached to it, becomes so inclusive that the ground commander exercises effective control over large parts of the air force. As a minimum, the theater commander should decide which campaigns are to be emphasized. To make these decisions, he needs candid advice from ground and air component commanders. They in turn must each have a thorough, unambiguous doctrinal understanding of how their respective Services can contribute to winning the war.

Having disposed of the thorny doctrinal problem of defining close air support, we now can look at how it can or should be used.

First, by his very nature, the soldier on the ground will find close air support useful in almost every conceivable situation, from pursuit to retreat. If it were available, the man on the ground would like to see air precede his every move. No air force has yet been large enough, even when totally subordinated to the army, to provide that level of service. The one possible exception may be the anomalous Vietnam War, where the American air force took part in most ground engagements.

Second, given that close air support is desired by everyone, but cannot be provided to all, how can this limited resource best be used?

Close Air Can be a Substitute

The answer is inherent in the definition we proposed and in the nature of aircraft. We suggested that close air support was a substitute for something that could be done with more divisions or more artillery if they were available. Therefore, (1) close air support normally will be most useful where the ground commander would decide to employ his last division or his last artillery regiment, if he had them -- and if he could get them there in time. The parenthetical expression leads us (2) to the nature of the airplane. It is fast, can get to a given location quickly, and can deliver significant firepower in a short time. On the other hand, a single airplane normally can't stay on station very long, and enough of them to maintain an around-the-clock coverage rarely are available.

We now have two ideas for where to use close air support: (1) where a ground commander would want to employ his own forces, if he could; and (2) where bursts of power -- as opposed to the long-term power of ground forces -- are indicated. Of course, humanitarian considerations also come into play and should be considered when feasible. Air power may be able to break an enemy line at a lower cost in friendly blood than the hypothesized extra division. Humanitarian considerations aside, commanders historically have wanted the extra division or artillery to break through the enemy lines, to prevent an enemy breakthrough, or to cover a flank. Close air support has accomplished all these missions. Let us look at some examples.

In the 1940 offensive in France, one of the first problems confronting the Germans was how to cross the Meuse River with three divisions opposed by three French divisions dug in on the opposite bank. An attack by Stuka dive bombers offered the key. But the question then arose as to whether one massive attack, as was consistent with Luftwaffe doctrine, would do, or a continuous attack would be carried out, as requested by the ground commander, General Guderian. Guderian explained that he needed to keep the enemy down while he made his initial crossings. A single attack would not accomplish that end. The air force then agreed to provide him with a stream of Stukas. The air attack took place, three divisions crossed the river to overwhelm three defending divisions, and a breakthrough was underway.114
One year later, the Germans again used air to spearhead a breakthrough -- this time on the Eastern Front.

On 23 August 1941, the Luftwaffe's VIII Corps (its dedicated close support unit) flew 1,600 sorties to open a way for a 60-kilometer advance by Wietershim's Panzer Corps. During this massive attack, the Luftwaffe lost only three aircraft, while destroying more than 90 Russian machines.115
The Americans also used air extensively for breakthrough operations. Normandy was the greatest such effort ever mounted. We already have discussed the role of air in interdicting movements of German forces to the beachhead area. But on the day itself many sorties were flown directly against German defensive positions. One particular mission is worth detailing, because it illustrates the use of air to do something more than make brute force holes in a line.

After learning from "Ultra" intercepts the location of the Panzer Group West headquarters, Allied aircraft struck the headquarters in force. They destroyed this key command structure, which had the very critical job of coordinating armor movements and killed a number of staff officers, including the chief of staff.116
In the Pacific theater, massive air attacks preceded amphibious landings in virtually every case. The Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that "sustained air preparation for landing operations against well defended positions materially reduced the casualty rate."117 Many factors affected the outcome of island invasions. But, remarkably, Japanese casualties tended to be 10 times higher than those of the attackers -- an outcome due in part to American air superiority and concomitant air attack.

Almost a quarter century later, in the 1967 Six Day War, the Israelis used their air to blast through fortified positions on the Syrian controlled ridge running north from the Sea of Galilee. Israeli armor poured through the gap to begin a pursuit that would carry it to within 25 miles of Damascus.118
In addition to opening the way for breakthrough operations, air also has provided the ground commander with protection for his flanks. The first significant use of air for this purpose took place in France in 1940, when the Luftwaffe was charged with covering the flanks of the army's deep armor penetrations.119 It performed a similar role by turning back a massive Russian attack on the right flank of the 4th Panzer Army, which was moving north for the offensive against the Kursk salient* in the summer of 1943.120

A year later, in France, the tables were turned when General Patton gave the XIX Tactical Air Command (TAC) the job of protecting his exposed flank along the Loire River as he raced to the east. So successful was the operation that the commander of German forces south of the Loire requested that the XIX TAC commander be present when he surrendered his command and 20,000 German troops.121

On the other side of the world, MacArthur used Kenney's air force to guard his flanks.

In September 1944, MacArthur needed another airfield for his move against Leyte. He chose the lightly occupied island of Morotai, instead of the heavily defended main island of Halmahera, less than 60 miles to the south. When MacArthur moved on to Leyte, he expected the air force to keep the 30,000 Japanese troops on Halmahera away from Morotai.122
On an as yet unequalled scale, MacArthur made the air force responsible for protecting the flank of one of history's longest operational penetrations; MacArthur had left strong Japanese forces intact on New Guinea, on Halmahera, in the Netherlands East Indies, and on Mindanao.123

Our next illustration comes from China. There, the Japanese armies had made a series of attempts to take the key cities of Kumming and Chunking. They all failed. After the war, the Japanese ground commanders reported that at least 75 percent of the resistance they encountered had come from air attacks mounted by 14th Air Force. The 14th, consuming supplies that would have supplied about a division of ground troops kept a 500,000-man army from reaching its objectives.124

This particular example could be interpreted as more interdiction than close air support, but it fits our definition of something that would be done by the ground commander if he had the divisions available to do it.

At the end of 1942, General Paulus's 6th Army found itself in dire straits after the Russians had encircled it at Stalingrad. Some evidence exists that the Russians had waited for weather bad enough to restrict Luftwaffe activity before launching the first part of their offensive against Paulus.125 By doing so, they achieved a degree of defensive air superiority. When the bad weather broke, however, the small Luftwaffe force (less than two dozen fighters and bombers), flying from fields within the encirclement, managed on several occasions to turn back substantial armored thrusts.126 It was, of course, unable to hold the Russians off indefinitely.

Six months after Stalingrad, the Luftwaffe played a key role in the action around Kursk and Orel.

The Germans were trying to cut off and encircle Russian forces in the Kursk salient, while the Russians were trying to do the same thing to the Germans in the Orel salient just to the north of Kursk. For lack of reserves, the Germans had to abandon the Kursk offensive to defend the Orel area. Key to the defense was the Luftwaffe. Every aircraft available on the eastern front was concentrated to meet the big Russian attack, which came on 19 July 1943.
General Model, the German commander at Orel, gave "full credit" to the Luftwaffe for stopping the offensive. He said that the German success was "from air alone."127

Our final example of close air support in the defense comes from Vietnam.

American commanders deliberately enticed North Vietnamese attacks on strong points that could be supported by close air operations. Khe Sanh provides a dramatic example. More than two divisions of North Vietnamese consisting of 15,000 to 20,000 men, besieged an emplacement manned by 6,000 marines. The North Vietnamese, with incredible tenacity and bravery, made attack after attack on the Americans. Despite their numerical superiority, however, they were unable to prevail against the 350 fighter and 60 bomber sorties that flew against them every day for two months. They finally were forced to lift the siege in March 1968 and fall back with terrible casualties.128
American losses on Khe Sanh were comparatively light. More than a decade before Khe Sanh, the North Vietnamese had won an impressive victory over the French in almost identical circumstances at Dien Bien Phu. The difference between the two battles was simple: the United States had massive airpower; the French did not.

Bad Weather Can Limit Close Air Support

As we have seen, close air support can do a lot for the ground commander. It is not, however, without its problems. One very important deficiency is the inability of close air support to operate when the weather is bad. The commander who counts on close air may be badly shocked if it is not available. Conversely, the commander who is trying to operate without significant air support may be able to execute a movement in bad weather that would be impossible in good weather, when enemy air could strike him repeatedly. Remember the Russian exploitation of bad weather for the Stalingrad counteroffensive. Perhaps the Russian commanders had gotten the idea after seeing the decrease in German speed of movement when bad weather in the fall of 1941 forced the Luftwaffe to reduce its daily sortie rate from 1,000 in September to 269 on 9 October.129

In retrospect, it is difficult to conceive of Germany's 1944 counteroffensive in the Ardennes getting started at all had not bad weather made it almost impossible for Allied air to operate against it. At some point in the future, conducting close air support in bad weather may be possible. Until that day, however, air and ground commanders must be aware that weather can have a significant effect on their plans.

Close air support may not always be available, even in the presence of a large air force. First, the need for it may be higher on some other part of the front. Second, and crucial for the ground commander to understand, other missions, such as air superiority or interdiction, may have higher theater priority. As discussed in chapter 3, air superiority is a theater necessity. Until it is won, any effort not contributing to it is diversionary and should only be undertaken in emergency situations, when the risks and rewards have been carefully considered.

As an example, Kenney refused air support to the Australians attacking Salamaua; he needed to concentrate his forces against Rabaul to win the air superiority that was a sine qua non for the overall campaign.130

The air component commander and the theater commander must consider the cost of providing close air support. It almost always will cost something, even if that something is only lost opportunity. We saw at the beginning of this chapter how the German army realized late in the war that it had misused the air force by committing it so heavily to close support. The Americans and British won the war, but they also debated the efficacy of close air support.

The most notable debate was over bomber support for the Normandy invasion.

The Air Force had argued strenuously that the big bombers should continue their efforts against the German homeland. The Combined Chiefs overruled the air arguments and ordered maximum bomber operations in France. Normandy was a big success and wouldn't have been without heavy air support. Nevertheless, the cost for diverting the bombers was a three-month delay in attacks on the German petroleum industry.
Would the war have ended sooner if the Germans had run out of fuel for their tanks and aircraft three months before they did?

Obviously, this question can't be answered, nor is it necessary to answer it. The point is that the Allies paid a definite price for diverting air away from Germany. Was the price right? It may well have been, but the price was there just as it will be there in future conflicts. Commanders must decide what they want to pay.

Like interdiction, close support seems to work best when the ground situation is dynamic. Close support has the capability to make holes that can be exploited offensively, and it has the capability to do serious damage to enemy offensives. It does not seem to work as well under relatively static circumstances.

This chapter has examined what close air support can do for the ground commander. It also has attempted to show that close air support is not without problems. A price is attached to it. Put in proper perspective, and used appropriately, it can make a big difference in the ground situation. It can provide the ground commander the wherewithal to do things he couldn't do without far more troops and artillery -- and very mobile ones at that.

To this point in the book, we have covered the three traditional combat missions for air -- air superiority, interdiction, and close air support.

Before attempting to put it all together for campaign planning. we need to consider one other topic that is generally not considered in connection with air operations. In the next chapter, we will look at reserves to see how they might affect the air war.