Is the dedicated attack aircraft a dying breed? Few air forces are developing new attack aircraft, preferring to rely on fighter-bombers carrying precision-guided munitions to do the dirty work of close air support and battlefield interdiction. But then it has always been such; tactical attack has long been shunted to the side by air forces more interested in fast fighters and majestic bombers. Many of the attack aircraft used in World War II began design life as fighters, only becoming attack planes when they “failed.” And yet these attack aircraft have, over the years, ably performed one of the most critical airpower missions—the destruction of the fielded forces of the enemy, and the support of friendly ground troops.
This article examines five modern aircraft that fill the very old role of ground attack. One of these aircraft has served since Vietnam; another has yet to fly a combat sortie. All are specialized (or have become specialized) for attacking enemy forces in tactical situations, and most have served in a variety of circumstances that emphasize the basic flexibility of the attack mission.
The A-10 Warthog was born of inter-service strife. In the late 1960s, the long-running fight between the U.S. Army and the US Air Force (USAF) over close air support birthed competing programs, with the Army supporting the Cheyenne attack helicopter and the Air Force sponsoring the A-X program. Problems with the Cheyenne, combined with the prospect of the A-X, resulted in the cancellation of the former. The latter eventually became the A-10, an aircraft built around a heavy gun, and specialized for killing Soviet tanks.
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The A-10 served effectively in the Gulf War, wreaking havoc on Iraqi vehicle convoys despite early USAF efforts to exclude it from the theater. The A-10 also served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and has most recently seen action against ISIS. Although the Warthog (as it is affectionately known) rarely kills tanks anymore, it has proven an extremely effective counterinsurgency aircraft, with slow speed and a long loiter time.
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The Air Force has attempted to eliminate the A-10 several times since the 1980s. The USAF argues that the plane is not survivable in contested airspace, and that multirole fighter-bombers (from the F-16 to the F-35) can fulfill its role more safely and efficiently. The strident A-10 pilot community, the U.S. Army, and the U.S. Congress continue to disagree, however. The latest political battle over the Warthog proved so frustrating for one Air Force general that he declared that any USAF personnel who sent information on the plane to Congress would be committing “treason.”
Like its American counterpart, the Su-25 is slow, well armored and capable of delivering an immense amount of ordnance. Designed, like the A-10, for attack missions along the Central Front in a NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict, the Su-25 has been adapted to a variety of new circumstances.
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The Su-25 has fought in a wide variety of conflicts since its introduction. It first saw service in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, as a counterinsurgency aircraft. The Iraqi Air Force used Su-25s extensively against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War. Su-25s have flown in many of the wars associated with the collapse of the Soviet Union, including the Russo-Georgian War of 2008 and the more recent war in Ukraine . Rebel Russian surface-to-air missile launchers shot down several Ukrainian Su-25s before downing a Malaysian civilian airliner. Last year, when it became apparent that the Iraqi National Army could not manage ISIS on its own, the Su-25 “Frogfoot” reentered the spotlight. Iran offered the use of its Su-25 fleet , and Russia purportedly rushed a delivery of aircraft into Iraqi service (although the aircraft probably came from Iranian stocks, seized in the 1990s from Iraq).
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Embraer Super Tucano
The Embraer Super Tucano is an outwardly modest airplane. It looks a bit like a North American P-51 Mustang, an aircraft that entered service over seventy years ago. The Super Tucano fills a very specific need: attack and loiter capability in noncontested airspace. This makes it an ideal counterinsurgency platform, capable of tracking insurgents, targeting them when flushed and hanging around until the job is done. The Super Tucano is, more or less, the perfect COIN aircraft.
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.