Modern fighter pilots risk their lives every day performing the act of strafing, which to some may seem like a tactic from a bygone era. Last November, an F-16 pilot, Maj. Troy L. Gilbert, died strafing the enemy in Iraq, trying to protect coalition forces taking fire on the ground. My first thought was, “Why was an F-16 doing that mission?” But I already knew the answer.
In the 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, I was combat-ready in the 512th Fighter Squadron, an F-16 unit at Ramstein AB, Germany. We had to maintain combat status in air-to-air, air-to-ground, and nuclear strike operations. We practiced strafing occasionally. We were not very good at it, but it was extremely challenging. There is a big difference between flying at 25,000 feet where you have plenty of room to maneuver and you can barely see a target, and at 200 feet, where the ground is rushing right below you and you can read the billboards screaming by.
In “No Man’s Land”—that is, below 5,000 feet—the chances of being hit go up astronomically. However, for many aircraft, the limitations of the gun require the pilot to fly lower, below 1,000 feet, if he or she hopes to consistently hit the target. When you get down that low, bad things can happen.
In the World War I Battle of St. Mihiel, Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker once strafed eight German artillery pieces, each drawn by a team of six horses. Horses and wagons scattered everywhere, the great pilot later recounted. The physical damage was not great, but the disruption of the horse train worked.
During the Vietnam War, we lost large numbers of aircraft, many as a result of getting down low and in the range of lethal fire. This made it a priority to build a ground attack aircraft dedicated to close air support.
Strafing in other fighter aircraft, though done more and more often, is extremely dangerous. To be effective on the battlefield, a pilot must be able to perform low-altitude passes in the face of the enemy. Each party is blazing away at the other. In fighter aircraft other than the A-10, the pilot must make very low passes if he is to deliver accurate fire from the gun. Doing this, though it might sound easy, requires intense concentration. This is critical if the pilot is to avoid flying through the up-thrown debris from exploding targets or flying into ground objects.
Imagine yourself flying down a large funnel that ends at the target. One finds lots of room to maneuver at the top of the funnel; you can do that and still hit the target. However, at the bottom of the funnel, you run out of maneuver room. One needs to place the aircraft’s aiming symbology short of the target such that it drifts up to the target as the gun comes within firing range. It is difficult to keep the gun sight on the target for more than two seconds while flying at 552 mph. One can’t just stare, zombie-like, at the target. This causes target fixation, which can become a fatal experience.
Then there is the risk of being brought down by the “Golden BB”—the single, lucky but lethal shot that finds its mark. That risk exists for virtually any fighter whose cockpit can be easily penetrated by ground fire. That is why, after the pilot has strafed the target, he pulls up hard. A wings-level pullout, producing at least four Gs in two seconds, is required for survival in most cases.
In Iraq, the adversary uses both road networks and riverine networks. There have been a number of occasions where boats have been identified carrying insurgents on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and we’ve used 20 mm and 30 mm guns to destroy those boats. A moving target is hard to hit with a bomb. With a gun, it’s no big deal. In one instance, the enemy was getting ready to move people somewhere to do something later that night, but we removed them from the fight.
Some pilots are expanding the strafing envelope, so to speak. Earlier this year, the Secretary of the Air Force, Michael W. Wynne, told this story: “About a year ago, our F-15 airmen were thinking about how they could execute night strafing. It seemed hard, maybe undoable. Last month, I learned it was being done in daily ops in the fight. ... Actually, it is now called easy.” The F-15 community had programmed F-15 simulators at Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C., where you could, through practice, work a night strafe from “hard” to “easy” in a matter of months.
I don’t see the F-22 doing much strafing; its mission is to hit the targets in denied airspace at strategic locations in front of our ground troops. Its gun is optimized to shoot down enemy aircraft. Usually the gun is needed for air-to-air combat because you are inside the minimum range of an air-to-air missile or it is the only weapon left. In the development of the F-22, there was a debate about whether we should take out that gun. I’m glad we didn’t, because, in combat trials, we have already had gun kills. The gun was required to complete the mission.
The F-35 Lightning II fighter, which is set to enter service in 2013, has a special gun, better for strafing ground targets than the gun found in the F-22. The F-35 is specifically designed to have the sensors and weapons needed to support ground operations. It will go deep, but it will also thrive in CAS engagements. Its gun will carry special shells powerful enough to penetrate armored targets, unlike the F-22, whose gun ammo is specially designed to blow up an airplane. The F-35’s gun will be a weapon of last resort, though, because of the extreme vulnerability of the pilot during a strafing mission.
Of course, strafing often happens for fighters like the F-16 when A-10s are not available or when all other ordnance has been expended. There will always be a possibility that you have to protect that guy on the ground with your last bullet. That part of the job will never completely disappear.
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