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Ground attack aircraft
A ground attack aircraft is an aircraft that is designed to operate very close to the ground, supporting infantry and tanks directly in battle. They are used essentially as mobile machine guns and anti-tank guns against single targets, as opposed to bombers which typically attack more "strategic" targets. This classification goes by a number of names, including attack aircraft, fighter-bomber, tactical fighter and even includes the dive bomber. They are occasionally identified by the prefix A- followed by a numerical designation.
Very few aircraft have been dedicated to the ground attack role, most that are used in this role are actually fighters or light bombers. Most of the dedicated designs came from early World War II when the available power from aircraft engines was so limited that every plane had to be dedicated to a single task. The most successful ground attack aircraft would generally be credited to the Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik, which was credited by Stalin for winning the war. The Luftwaffe fielded a very similar plane, the Henschel Hs 129, but produced very few of them and they had no effect on the war effort.
By the end of that war the average day fighter had more than enough capability to carry out the ground attack role, and some of the most successful designs were slight modifications of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 and unmodified Hawker Typhoons.
In the post-war era air forces have been increasingly reluctant to develop combat aircraft specifically for ground attack. Although close air support and interdiction remain crucial to the modern battlefield, attack aircraft are less glamorous than fighters, and both pilots and military planners have a certain well-cultivated contempt for 'mud-movers.' Examples include the Blackburn Buccaneer, A-6 Intruder, A-7 Corsair II, Panavia Tornado IDS, Sukhoi Su-7, and Sukhoi Su-17. Otherwise, ground attack has become the domain of converted trainers like the BAC Strikemaster , BAE Hawk, and Cessna A-37.
In the late 1960s the US Air Force requested a dedicated air support plane that became the Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II. It eventually became primarily an anti-armor weapon with limited capability in the interdiction and tactical bombing role, and even in the anti-tank role it was met with ambivalence. Current US doctrine increasingly emphasizes the use of US Army helicopters for close air support and anti-tank missions. The Soviets' similar Su-25 Frogfoot found greater success in the flying artillery role, although it, too, shifted to anti-armor use in later versions and has largely been phased out in favor of 'fast mover' fighter-bomber versions of the MiG-29 and Su-27.
Nevertheless, the role remains well-defined and in use, resulting in dual designations like F/A-18 Hornet. More recently, the term strike fighter has been gaining currency as the way to refer to these dual-role aircraft. Ironically, in British parlance "strike" was for some years a euphemism for the nuclear attack role, with "attack" used to denote conventional (non-nuclear) missiones.
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