Bombs Away: The 5 Most Deadly Attack Aircraft

The very old role of ground attack is still very important. Here are five aircraft that ground troops hope to never see in the skies above them. 

The Super Tucano flies (or will soon fly) with over a dozen air forces in South America, Africa and Asia. The plane helps Brazil manage its vast Amazonian hinterland, and facilitates Colombia’s fight against FARC. The Dominican Air Force uses the Super Tucano to fight against the drug trade. In Indonesia, the aircraft helps hunt pirates.

After years of struggle, the USAF finally managed to get its hands on a squadron of the planes, with the intention of using them to increase the effectiveness of partner air forces, including the Afghan National Air Force. The Super Tucano is perfect for the ANA; easy to maintain and fly, it has the potential to give the Afghan Air Force a key advantage over the Taliban.

Lockheed Martin AC-130 Spectre

In the early years of the Vietnam War, the USAF came to appreciate the need for a big, heavily armed aircraft that could hang around the battlefield, delivering gunfire when Communist forces either emerged to attack, or were flushed from hiding. The Air Force initially developed the AC-47 “Spooky,” a C-47 transport plane equipped with guns mounted in the transport bay.

The Spooky proved effective, and a CAS desperate Air Force decided that larger aircraft might do even better. Developed from the C-130 Hercules transport, the AC-130 is big, slow and utterly hapless against enemy fighters or a serious air-defense network. Several AC-130s were lost in Vietnam, and one was lost to a shoulder-fired missile in the Gulf War.

But in its element, the AC-130 absolutely chews enemy ground positions to pieces. It can orbit an enemy position endlessly, delivering heavy gunfire and a large selection of alternative ordnance. The AC-130 provides eyes on the battlefield, along with the capability to kill anything that moves. AC-130s served in Vietnam, the Gulf War, the invasion of Panama, the Balkans conflict, the Iraq War and operations in Afghanistan. Some reports suggest a variant has been optimized for fighting zombies.

Textron Scorpion

The Textron Scorpion has never dropped a bomb, fired a missile or flown a combat sortie. But someday it may, and this could help change the market for military aviation in the 21st century. The Scorpion is a sub-sonic jet aircraft carrying a very heavy armament. It lacks the gun power of either the A-10 or the Su-25, but carries advanced avionics and is light enough to risk on various ISR and attack missions.

The Scorpion has the potential to fill an important niche in many air forces. For a long time, air forces have been reluctant to acquire “tweener” aircraft, planes that fulfill several critical functions, but that don’t carry the same prestige and glitz as a major fighter. Given the rapid increase in fighter costs, however, and the fact that many air forces desperately need dedicated attack aircraft in order to maintain internal order and patrol borders, the Scorpion (as well as the Super Tucano) would seem to make sense.

In a sense, the Scorpion offers a high-end counterpart to the Super Tucano. A developing air force could do far worse than investing in both aircraft, which would give plenty of options with respect to ground attack, while also offering (through the Scorpion) a modest air-to-air capability.

Conclusion

There’s a reason most of these aircraft ceased production decades ago. The attack aircraft has never been particularly popular, as a type, with the world’s air force. Close air support and interdiction, especially at low altitude, are exceedingly dangerous missions. Attack aircraft too often operate along the seams of interservice divisions, sometimes falling victim to conflicts between armies and air forces.

To replace attack aircraft, modern air forces have concentrated on improving the precision-attack capabilities of fighter-bombers and strategic bombers. Thus, many of the close air support missions conducted by the USAF in Afghanistan came from B-1B bombers, aircraft originally intended to deliver nuclear strikes against the Soviet Union.

But as the recent battles in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine have indicated, the dedicated attack aircraft still has an important role to play. If the traditional military-industrial providers in the United States and Europe can’t fill this gap, then (relative) newcomers like Textron and Embraer may fill the gap.

Robert Farley is an assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money,Information Dissemination and The Diplomat. Follow him on Twitter:@drfarls.

Image: Flickr/Official U.S. Air Force/CC by-nc 2.0

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