Plane in the middle: A history of the U.S. Air Force's dedicated close air support plane
Close air support for ground forces can decisively affect battles, but it is difficult to accomplish due to differences in air and ground force perspectives and warfighting priorities. However, the American military accomplishes this mission more than any other national military arm because it relies upon technology in the form of ample firepower to win battles and save troops' lives. Ironically, the best close air support plane is not the latest and fastest fighter. It is instead a slower and more durable tactical plane. Air combat history confirms this conclusion, but the mission and its plane's existence rely upon the historical, technological, and procurement outlooks of the two services—the Army and the Air Force-involved in this truly joint mission.
Their relationship through the 1960s featured the airmen's struggle to separate from the Army, air power's decisive role in World War II, and interservice friction after that war. During those years, the Air Force neglected close air support because it emphasized strategic bombing and because it thought fighter planes could accomplish the mission without much practice. The Army's development of attack helicopters and the Air Force's own embarrassing unreadiness for close air support in Vietnam sparked the airmen's fears that they might lose the mission. Thus, for the first time, the Air Force in 1966 commenced purchase of a dedicated close air support plane.
After ten years of political maneuvering, budget decisions, technological developments, and doctrinal changes, a more enthusiastic Air Force leadership fielded the A-10. For the rest of the 1970s, the leaders strove to prove the plane's worth. However, in the early 1980s, the Army's own doctrinal evolution and a new tactical fighter, the F-16, changed their attitude. Air Force leaders then claimed that modem air defenses, the Army's new warfighting style, and the F-I6's multimission capabilities made CAS and the A-10 obsolete. Their action ignited a bureaucratic, political, and defense media fight against those who valued the mission and its plane. Political action, budgetary exigencies, and the A-10's success in Desert Storm reaffirmed the dedicated close air support plane's worth. Post-Cold War demands revealed the mission's importance as well.