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Help from above: the high cost of modern combat aircraft militates against risking them in close air support, but there are times when only air assets can provide the necessary fast response and concentration of firepower. This type of mission also remains essential for special forces and operations in mountainous terrain, where heavy artillery is not usually available.

Close air support is a specialised form of ground attack in which the hostile target is in proximity to friendly forces. Such strikes require careful co-ordination with land forces and precise weapon delivery if 'blue-on-blue' casualties are to be avoided.

A pilot from the supporting air unit normally acts as a forward air controller, either on the ground or in the air. The US services have recently changed the designation to Joint Terminal Attack Controller, and this may well become Nato standard.

Verbal directions to the attacking pilots were traditionally supplemented by fluorescent ground panels and coloured smoke target marking, but in the leading air forces such measures have now been replaced by laser designation.

The procedure can work well, provided that the target is not obscured by low cloud, fog or smoke, and those involved are experienced. Serious errors can still occur when different nationalities are involved, especially if pilots are not trained to recognise their allies' vehicles.

Given modern navigation and targeting systems and 'smart' weapons, some level of close air support (Cas) can be provided by multi-role combat aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin F-16 and Boeing F-15E, bombers such as the Boeing B-52H and B-1B, jet trainers such as the BAE Systems Hawk and (in a benign environment) basic trainers such as the Beechcraft T-6. However, in order to keep this review within reasonable limits only dedicated Cas aircraft are discussed.


The US Air Force can afford to buy and operate specialised combat aircraft types in significant numbers. In the 1970s US Air Force planning for conventional warfare emphasised the ability to halt a massive armoured thrust by Warsaw Pact forces. Coupled with the growing threat from front-line air defences, this brought about a change in Cas thinking from Vietnam-era turboprop projects to a requirement for a twin-turbofan aircraft.

The resulting 23-tonne Fairchild A-10 was designed around a massive 30-mm Gatling gun (General Dynamics GAU-8/A) firing depleted uranium projectiles. The A-10 (for which Lockheed Martin is now prime contractor) can carry up to 7200 kg of mixed ordnance on eleven hardpoints. Although slow and thus heavily dependent on air superiority, the A-10 has a longer endurance and a shorter turning radius than jet fighters.

Deliveries of the A-10A began in 1975 and there are still 367 in service with US Air Force active, Reserve and Air National Guard units. It served in the 1991 Gulf War and is still used by the US Air Force in Afghanistan.

Lockheed Martin has received two contracts covering the upgrading of the first 179 of an anticipated total of 356 that are to be brought to A-10C standard. The first production A-10C was delivered to the Maryland Air National Guard in August 2006, and operational capability is scheduled for May 2007. This Precision Engagement programme is expected to allow the aircraft to remain in service until 2028.

The first 'increment' of the programme covers the upgrading of the cockpit, introducing two multi-function colour displays, a digital moving map and hotas controls. In the second increment, six weapon stations will be wired to take the GPS-guided Boeing Jdam series and the inertially guided Lockheed Martin WCMD (Wind-Corrected Munitions Dispenser).

When funding is available, the A-10's General Electric TF34 engines will be upgraded and at least 200 aircraft will be fitted with new wings to extend fatigue life from 9000 to 16,000 hours. Boeing is competing for this $1.5 billion contract.


The US Air Force's A-X contest probably inspired the 17-tonne Sukhoi Su-25 project, work on which began in 1968. Somewhat resembling the Northrop A-9A (which came second in the A-X contest) the Su-25 has a thinner wing and more thrust than the similarly sized A-10. It consequently has a higher speed (950 km/hr, compared to 675 km/hr for the A-10A).

Prototype Su-25s were evaluated in Afghanistan in 1980 and Soviet production aircraft flew over 60,000 combat sorties in that theatre. This has led to improved armour and the addition of eight 32-round flare dispensers. In the 1980s Su-25Ks were also used operationally by the air forces of Iraq and Angola. Since 1994, Russian Su-25s have seen extensive use in Chechnya.

Around 1320 Su-25s had been completed when production ended in 1992, and approximately 500 are still in service with 16 air forces. Some Russian aircraft are being upgraded to Su-25SM standard, and the radar-equipped Su-25TM/Su-39 (a single-seater based on the two-seat Su-25UB airframe) is offered for export. The Su-39 has a maximum weight of 19.5 tonnes with 1115 kg of 'survivability assets' and 4000 kg of ordnance on ten pylons. A twin-barrel 30 mm GSh-2-30 cannon is carried internally.

Reports of Venezuela recently negotiating for 24 Su-25s may well refer to surplus Russian and Belarus aircraft (as sold to Ethiopia and Peru). Various Su-25 upgrades are also being marketed.


The other purpose-designed close support aircraft is the 14.5-tonne Boeing AV-8B Harrier II stovl aircraft flown primarily by the US Marine Corps. The Harrier GR7/9 version operated by the RAF/RN Joint Harrier Force was assembled by BAE Systems and has some equipment changes. The AV-8B and Harrier GR7/9 will eventually be replaced by the Lockheed Martin F-35B.

As demonstrated in the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas conflict and the 1991 Gulf War, stovl provides unrivalled ship/shore basing flexibility. In operation Desert Storm, US Marine Corps AV-8Bs were operated from sites only 65 km from the Kuwaiti border, giving quick reaction times and high sortie rates. In Afghanistan, Harriers were initially the only fast jets capable of using the runway at Kandahar.

On the other hand, the nature of the stovl powerplant penalises in-flight performance. In the case of the Harrier, the location of the nozzles attracts infrared-homing Sams to the centre fuselage, increasing damage to the engine and fuel tanks.

The general conclusion appears to be that stovl is worthwhile only for amphibious forces and naval operations, since it makes possible the use of minimalist airstrips and aircraft carriers. However, the ability to disperse aircraft could be seen in a new light if ever US Air Force airfields are attacked with ballistic missiles carrying NBC warheads.


In Vietnam it was discovered that the best way to protect a village that was under all-night attack was to have a circling transport aircraft with side-firing weapons providing a persistent cone of suppressive fire. The Douglas AC-47 was the first true fixed-wing 'gunship', and spawned the even more heavily armed and more persistent 70-tonne AC-130 conversion of the Lockheed Martin Hercules. The AC-130 remains in use by the US Air Force, which lists eight AC-130Hs and 13 Boeing-converted AC-130Us in its active inventory.

In order to minimise its number of different ammunition types, the US Air Force is replacing the aircraft's 20/25 mm Gatling and 40 mm Bofors with a pair of 30 mm ATK Mk 44 Bushmaster II chain guns. Replacing the current 105 mm M102 howitzer with a 120 mm breech-loading mortar is under study. In order to provide more standoff range, the installation of the 48-kg Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire or 20 kg Northrop Grumman Viper Strike missiles, or the General Dynamics Hydra 70 rocket projectile pods is reportedly also under consideration.

Attack Helicopters

This article is primarily concerned with fixed-wing close air support, since it is planned to discuss attack helicopters in Armada 5/2007. The following notes are presented only as an introduction to that more detailed study.

The 'father' of the modern attack helicopter was the Bell AH-1 Cobra, which first saw service in Vietnam. The latest version in service is the US Marine Corps AH-1W SuperCobra, some 180 examples of which are scheduled to be remanufactured to the 8.4-tonne AH-1Z Viper standard with General Electric T700-GE-401 engines, new transmissions, four-blade rotors, Thales Top Owl helmet-mounted sight/display and Lockheed Martin Hawkeye target sight systems. The first of three prototypes flew in late 2000, and the first production AH-1Z was rolled out in September 2006, but IOC (initial operational capability) is not required until 2011.

The sales leader in this market sector is the US Army's Boeing AH-64 Apache, which first flew in 1975 and achieved initial operational capability in 1986. There are currently well over a thousand AH-64A/Ds in service with eleven forces.

The AH-64A served with distinction in the 1991 Gulf War and it has been used in Iraq and Afghanistan. A total of 821 AH-64As were produced, including 797 for the US Army. Some ex-Army Apaches are included in the export list of 36 AH-64As for Egypt, 20 for Greece, 52 for Israel, 12 for Saudi Arabia and 30 for the United Arab Emirates.

A total of 637 AH-64D Apache Longbows with provisions for Northrop Grumman/Lockheed Martin APG-78 radars have been ordered for the US Army, including 597 remanufactured AH-64As (284 in Block I and 313 in Block II).

Seven international customers have so far ordered the 7.5-tonne AH-64D, which entered US Army service in 1998. Some Apaches are being upgraded with the Lockheed Martin Arrowhead modernisation kit for the nose-mounted Tads/ PVNS (Target Acquisition Designation Sight/Pilot Night Vision Sensor) which was first fielded in 1983.

The US Army plans to have all its AH-64D Block Is converted to Block III standard, with deliveries from 2011 to 2017, and then to bring its 340 Block IIs to a new Block IV standard, with completely new engines and (possibly) some form of directed-energy weapon.

The principal competitor to the AH-1Z and AH-64D is the new six-tonne Eurocopter EC665 Tiger, which first flew in 1991. Production was launched in 1999 on the basis of an order for 160, to be equally divided between France and Germany. Deliveries began in 2005. France is currently to receive 40 fire-support Hapand 40 multi-role Had-Tigers, while Germany will have 80 anti-armour UHTs. The original two-nation plan was for an eventual total of 427 units, but the ending of the Cold War has probably reduced this number to around 220.

Australia has ordered 22 Tiger ARHs based on the Hap version, and Spain is to buy 24 Tiger-Hads. As an anti-armour missile, Germany will use the Eads-LFK Trigat-LR and MBDA Hot-3, while France will only have the Hot-3, Spain the Rafael Spike-ER and Australia the Lockheed Martin Hellfire.

The AgustaWestland A129 is a light design by attack helicopter standards, with a gross weight of only 4.6 tonnes. Some 60 have been produced for the Italian Army, with which it has seen extensive operational experience in Albania, Bosnia, Eritrea, Kosovo, Macedonia, Somalia and Iraq. It has recently been selected by Turkey for its Atak programme.

The 8.75-tonne Denel Rooivalk (Red Kestrel) is in service with the South African Air Force. Benefiting from SAAF operational experience in Angola, the Rooivalk design is geared toward use under extreme hot/high conditions and has engine air filters as standard to deal with the dust problems encountered in southern Africa. The mission system by Advanced Technologies & Engineering has been successfully transferred as an upgrade for the Mi-24/35.

However, the future of the helicopter is now being questioned after loosing the battle against the Mangusta in Turkey. While the Air Force has denied intentions to mothball all its twelve aircraft, some observers belive it will be difficult to sustain such a small fleet, with engines supplied by Turbomeca and other dynamic components, including transmission, by Eurocopter.

The Russian Air Force's replacement for the Mi-24/35 is the Mi-28N, which first flew in (Rostvertol) new-build form in 2004. The first seven were due for delivery in 2006 and the service hopes to purchase up to 50 Mi-28Ns by 2010. The export Mi-28NE Night Hunter is being marketed in China.

Targeting Pods

Returning to the subject of the A-10C, a new digital store management system will allow it to use the Northrop Grumman AAQ-28(V) Litening AT or Lockheed Martin AAQ-33 Sniper XR advanced targeting pod (ATP), in either case with a C-band video downlink to Rover III ground stations.

Day/night sensor pods with laser spot tracking and marking facilities were discussed in Armada 2/2006. One of the leaders has been Rafael with the Litening series, which was exported to several countries and manufactured under licence by Northrop Grumman for the US Air Force and US Marine Corps. Applications include the latter's Boeing AV-8B Harrier II and Northrop Grumman's EA-6B and AV-8Bs as flown by the navies of Italy and Spain.

All US Litening systems have been upgraded to Litening AT standard, and procurement continues. The Litening AT was used by US Air Force Lockheed Martin F-16s in the June 2006 strike against Al-Qaeda leader al-Zarqawi, using a Raytheon GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bomb and a Boeing GBU-38 GPS-guided Jdam.

The Litening AT has also been selected by the air forces of Australia, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain. Over 500 of these pods have so far been ordered.

Rafael is marketing a Litening III, which has already been selected for Britain's RAF Eurofighter Typhoon and Panavia Tornado GR4. Northrop Grumman has also outlined plans for fourth-generation enhancements for the third-generation Litening AT.

The US Navy chose the Raytheon ASQ-228 Atflir (Advanced Targeting Flir) for the Hornet and Super Hornet series. It entered service in 2003 and, by the end of 2006, 161 systems had been delivered. Some 574 units have so far been ordered.

Well over 500 examples of the Lockheed Martin Sniper XR pod have been ordered, primarily for the US Air Force and Army National Guard F-16s, but also for the former's Boeing F-15E and B-1B and (under the export designation Pantera) for the F-16s of Belgium, Norway, Oman and Poland. In February 2007 the Sniper ATP was selected to satisfy an urgent British requirement for the RAF Harrier GR9s in Afghanistan. It is anticipated that the Sniper XR will be used on the Lockheed Martin F-35.

The Sniper ATP benefits from Lockheed Martin's earlier Lantirn (Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting InfraRed for Night) twin-pod system, which is used on the F-16s of over a dozen air forces, and the company's Sharpshooter targeting pod. Some Danish F-16AM/BMs fly with just the AAQ-14 targeting pod (not the AAQ-13 navigation pod), and this is being upgraded to Lantirn-ER (Extended Range) standard with the third-generation flir system from the Sniper ATE

Another current targeting pod is the Tiald used on British RAF Tornadoes and Harriers. The Tiald is now the responsibility of Finmeccanica's Selex Sensors & Airborne Systems division and is currently undergoing an upgrade. The Thales Damocles pod used on French and UAE Dassault Mirage 2000-5s has also been selected for Malaysia's Sukhoi Su-30MKM.

Friendly Fire

Priority is being given to eliminating 'blue-on-blue' attacks. For the 2003 invasion of Iraq most US and British combat vehicles were fitted with Blue Forces Tracking (BFT) transponders, sending their positions to a headquarters unit that generated a real-time map of Coalition forces. This BFSA (Blue Force Situational Awareness) information was used in planning and controlling US Air Force and US Marine Corps air strikes.

The Precision Engagement upgrade of the A-10C will include a secure Situational Awareness DataLink (Sadl). Developed by AFRL, Sadl will allow the Fac (for example, in an AC-130) to display a map of friendly forces' locations in the cockpits of attacking aircraft. Britain's BAE Systems Harrier GR9/9A and Tornado GR4/4A are to be upgraded with a comparable system designated Tactical Information Exchange Capability (Tiec). BAE Systems is prime contractor, with General Dynamics UK providing the datalink subsystem.

Priority is also being given to speeding up image transmission between air and ground relative to the current Tadil-J (Link 16). Rockwell Collins is being funded by Darpa and AFRL to develop a Tactical Targeting Network Technology (TTNT) system, effectively creating an airborne Internet.

Another important avionic development is the Raytheon Advanced Tactical Targeting Technology (AT3) system, which pinpoints enemy air defence and Sam radars by fuzing data from several fighter radar warning receivers. The aim is to achieve a 50-metre accuracy from a standoff distance of 90 km within ten seconds of the start of target transmissions.


The need for accurate weapon delivery and minimal collateral damage favours the use of cannon, rocket projectiles and relatively light guided bombs and missiles.

Cannon are particularly important in the case of attack helicopters, which typically have a slow-firing 30 mm gun to outrange small-calibre ground fire. For example, the AH-64 has a 30 mm Alliant Techsystems M230 Chain Gun firing 200 rd/min, while the Tiger has a 30-mm Nexter Systems 30M781 revolver cannon, firing 750 rd/min. The AH-1Z is the exception, with a three-barrel 20 mm General Dynamics M-197 Gatling firing up to 1500 rd/min.

To illustrate current weapon loads, if two British Harriers are on patrol over Afghanistan, the leader would typically have two 245-kg freefall bombs and two rocket pods containing six and 19 Bristol Aerospace CRV7s, while the second aircraft would carry one 450-kg freefall bomb, a 540-kg Raytheon Enhanced Paveway II (EP2) laser/GPS-guided bomb and a Tiald targeting pod. Whereas the RAF would not use an unguided 540kg bomb at less than 800 metres from friendly forces, the EP2 has been dropped in Afghanistan within 150 metres.

Unlike the US Marine Corps' AV-8B, the RAF Harrier GR7/9 has no gun, and has only recently been given secure radio communications. Later Harrier developments centre on the 227-kg Raytheon Paveway IV (operational this year) and the MBDA Brimstone anti-armour missile (operational 2008) with active mm-wave guidance.

The principal Western rockets are the 70-mm CRV7 and General Dynamics' Hydra 70. There has long been a need for a guided 70 mm rocket to fill the gap between unguided rockets and expensive air-to-ground guided missiles. This need has been borne out in Afghanistan, where Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire missiles have been used against small numbers of personnel.

In April 2006 BAE Systems was selected by the US Army as prime contractor to develop the laser-guided APKWS-II derivative of the Hydra 70. In March 2007 Lockheed Martin unveiled its company-funded, laser-homing 70mm Direct Attack Guided Rocket (Dagr), described as the first in its class to provide full Hellfire functionality. The Dagr has programmable laser coding and can be fired in a lock-on-before-launch mode against off-axis targets.

In March 2007 it was announced that South Korea and the US are to collaborate on the development of a 70-mm Low-cost Guided Imaging Rocket (Logir), presumably with an imaging-infrared sensor. Kongsberg is developing a laser guidance and control package for 70 mm rockets, and Russia's 122 mm is available in laser-guided (S-13L) form.

Guided bombs were discussed in some detail in Armada 6/2006. One of the principal developments is the 130-kg GPS/INS-guided Boeing GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bomb, which can achieve a range of 70 km with an MBDA Diamond Back wing kit and will later have a two-way datalink and multi-mode seeker. This follows the heavier (225/450/900 kg) GPS/INS-guided Boeing GBU-31 to -38 Jdam series, of which a laser-augmented version is under development.

The trend to multi-mode guidance is likewise true of the Raytheon Paveway laser-guided bomb series, some variants of which are manufactured by Lockheed Martin. The latter is developing for the US Navy a dual-mode version of the 225-kg GBU-12 Paveway II, adding GPS/INS navigation. The 340-kg Sagem AASM will begin life with GPS/INS but an IIR seeker will be added later. A rocket motor and range-extension airfoils are further options.
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Title Annotation:Close air support
Author:Braybrook, Roy
Publication:Armada International
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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