When the Piper Cub Roamed the Battlefield
Edgar F. Raines Jr., Eyes of the Artillery: The Origins of Modern U.S. Army Aviation in World War II (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 2000)
For all the finesse and dominance of the P-51 Mustang in the skies over Europe during World War II, one of the last air-to-air kills in the European theater is credited to an L-4 Grasshopper observation aircraft. Two members of America’s 71st Armored Field Artillery Battalion, 5th Armored Division caught a German Fieseler Fi156 Storch by surprise and using pistols managed to hit the gas tank, dive on the German, and force the enemy to crash into the ground. The field artillery men landed, captured the two German crew, and turned them over to a passing American tank column.
The importance of the L-4 to the American effort in World War II is part of a larger story about the Army’s internal battle over introducing organic aviation into field artillery battalions. Organic aviation involves assigning aircraft, personnel, and equipment to the operational control of a ground forces commander, as opposed to a more centralized arrangement in which ground forces commanders rely on the independent Army Air Forces commander for aerial observation of enemy activity on the ground. In World War II, organic aviation assigned to field artillery units provided observation for indirect fire missions, locating and targeting enemy forces beyond the visual range of ground-based observers. Light observation aircraft like the L-4, under the operational control of ground force commanders, enabled efficient destruction of enemy forces. However, organic aviation was only established after a long period of bureaucratic infighting that reflected deeper disagreements between the Army Ground Forces and Army Air Forces about the role of new technology on the battlefield.
Today, these themes are echoed in the debate about the Air Force’s contract for the OA-X light observation/attack aircraft. Arguments about the OA-X provide an array of positives and negatives about selecting and even fielding such a low-cost, vulnerable aircraft. Support for and against the OA-X is typically drawn from the service-specific pages of Air Force history. But perhaps other services can offer lessons about how to meet a tactical need when the technological means to do so seems far off. The Army’s experience with organic aviation may provide valuable perspective on the incorporation of light, relatively low-technology aircraft into a war zone with a combined arms approach. The origin story of organic Army aviation is a timeless study of balancing between different bureaucratic cultures and their respective usage of technology to maximize combat effectiveness.
Organic Aviation and the OA-X
Dr. Edgar Raines’s book, Eyes of the Artillery, provides a solid foundation to explore the debate and circumstances surrounding the placement of aircraft within the Army ground forces and the contemporary role of light, fixed-wing aircraft over the battlefield. An efficient and accessible read even at 371 pages, Eyes of the Artillery focuses on the institutional origins of the U.S. Army’s organic aviation in the field artillery’s Air-Observation-Post Program during World War II
Raines, who retired as senior historian at the Center of Military History, argues that a transformation in the art of war created the necessity for reform. New, previously unavailable technologies provided the means to this end. Light aircraft allowed for the emergence of organic aviation by providing situationally aware, immediately available aviation assets that the ground forces commander controlled, which aligned with the Army’s embracing of the philosophy of combined arms. This arrangement, however, clashed with the Army Air Corps’ doctrinal argument for concentrating air power assets and employing them independently to attack at points of enemy vulnerability.
Throughout 2017, the Air Force has conducted a fly-off experiment between several different airframes to assess their capabilities for both light attack and armed reconnaissance missions in forward-deployed locations. The nation’s 16-year engagement in low-intensity conflicts and counterinsurgencies has repeatedly demonstrated the need for a more cost-effective means to put ordnance on adversaries, as opposed to wearing out frontline fighters and strategic bombers performing the same missions over essentially threat-less enemy airspace. Several of the OA-X requirements parallel those of the field artillery over 75 years ago: It needs to be an off-the-shelf aircraft with the ability to operate from unprepared landing fields; it needs to have loiter time, range, and data link capability (akin to World War II communications); and it needs aerobatic capability to avoid enemy threats. The debate over OA-X boils down to a few key elements: necessity/mission, technology, survivability, cost, and duplicity of effort.
Eyes in the Sky
Organized chronologically, Eyes of the Artillery efficiently traces the birth of the Army’s organic aviation effort. As projectile weaponry increased in range and accuracy, the service saw a greater need to observe and locate a target beyond ground level. The solution came in the form of aviation. In the chapters covering the years 1861-1938, readers are exposed to the advantages of aerial observation and the early limitations of the aircraft and techniques employed to spot artillery fire and enemy movements. World War I gave the U.S. Army a wealth of practical experience with aerial observation, but two overarching problems emerged: communications between the air and ground forces, and the subsequent coordination between the aerially observed information and the artillery fire.
These limitations aside, World War I showcased immense potential for aviation’s influence over the battlefield. The vision of an independent air force and potential uses of air power began to relegate the role of observation to the veritable storeroom of war. As Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell argued, observation was the least important mission of the Air Service. Following passage of the Air Corps Act of 1926, Raines notes that observation declined “into orphan status and an intellectual and professional backwater within the Air Corps.” Strategic bombardment theory and its necessary technological requirements dominated the Army Air Corps and “ensured the stagnation of observation doctrine.”
For the Army Ground Forces, however, aerial observation remained a concern. An ideal example of an aircraft that could provide the necessary observation was the Piper J-3 Cub, destined to become the L-4 Grasshopper. Air Corps officers, who tended to be more focused on the newest and most innovative aircraft, deemed the Cub technologically obsolete. But it offered ground forces simplicity and reliability paired with ease of operation, repair, and maintenance. Along with the civilian availability of the Cub and similar aircraft, two other critical elements emerged to make what became the Air-Observation-Post program possible. First, the Army Signal Corps began to field new lightweight FM radios providing static-free, reliable air to ground communications; Second, the field artillery made the battalion the primary unit for delivering indirect fire. This was coordinated via a battalion fire-control center, whereby firing data could be computed to permit multiple guns to accurately fire simultaneously on the same target. These three factors enabled Army ground forces to anoint adversaries with a storm of fire and steel.
From 1939 through 1943, the concept of the Air-Observation-Post program worked its way slowly and methodically through a litany of bureaucracy and field work. The protagonists in this effort were predominantly in the field artillery branch, but also included fortuitous connections among senior uniformed and civilian leaders and support from the private aircraft industry. Foremost among the proponents was Maj. Gen. Robert M. Danford, the branch chief who oversaw the development of a field artillery policy. In 1940, Danford formally proposed to obtain aircraft organic to corps and division artillery flown and maintained by field artillery personnel. Danford’s foil is found in Maj. Gen. Henry H. Arnold, a Mitchell acolyte opposed to the decentralized employment of air power and convinced that light, slow aircraft could not survive in modern warfare against the latest aviation designs and technologies.
Through intellectual mastery of the subject, a clearly defined problem and requirement, and support from the assistant secretary of war, Danford secured a field test of the Air-Observation-Post concept. The cumulative effort allowed him and his successors to bureaucratically outmaneuver Arnold, culminating in the War Department’s establishment of organic aviation in the field artillery on June 6, 1942. Raines’ retelling of the bureaucratic dueling makes for an interesting read, and highlights the divergence in Army Ground and Air Forces’ philosophies. Arnold and the Army Air Forces didn’t see the rationale for organic employment of light aircraft in part because of a general lack of awareness about post-World War I technological changes in ground forces. The Air Forces, more focused on maintaining its control of Army aviation as arguments for an independent air force gained ground, saw the individual aircraft as low-technology and obsolete. But for the Army Ground Forces, the light aircraft was low – albeit not second-rate – technology that, when incorporated with other technologies, formed a sophisticated high-technology system for massing indirect artillery fire. In Raines’ words: “Air and ground officers, throughout the controversy over organic air, communicated not so much with one another as past one another. They exchanged words but not meanings.”
Trial by Fire
As with the U.S. Army’s overall performance in North Africa, the Air Observation Posts initially failed to meet expectations, placing the program’s future in doubt. Nevertheless, leaders kept faith in the effort. From North Africa emerged a valuable field artillery lesson in doctrine, specifically that air observation would never again be considered a supplement to ground observation. It was now the primary means of observation.
In the ensuing operations in Sicily and Italy, aircraft – affectionately christened “flying jeeps” or “puddle jumpers” by ground troops thankful for their presence – began to demonstrate the potential for organic aviation. The humble L-4, equipped with an effective FM radio transmitting to a battalion fire direction center with a trained crew, brought devastating fires down upon German forces. The mere presence of the Field Artillery aircraft overhead became an effective counterbattery tool. German (and, later, Japanese) batteries learned to hold their fire, lest their muzzle flashes bring forth a rain of Cub-directed shells. In Italy, innovative combined arms approaches also emerged. Organic air-observation-post aircraft of the 1st Armored Division developed a system wherein field artillery pilots could report targets beyond the range of artillery directly to fighter bombers – an antecedent to forward air controllers.
Raines concludes that organic aviation sections “reached their greatest development” in the 1944-1945 campaigns in France and Germany. During the liberation of Western Europe, Field artillery pilots demonstrated the ability to support ground units in periods of extended mobile operations. Once Allied forces broke out of Normandy, Air-Observation-Post aircraft gave commanders an invaluable tool to outmaneuver, outgun, and overcome German defenses. Future missions and roles for organic aviation, specifically air mobility and anti-armor, manifested themselves during this period and created additional demand for the next Army organic aircraft: the helicopter. Neither the Germans nor the Japanese had an effective response to the humble L-4. Despite its operational limitations, Raines maintains the L-4 “was the perfect aircraft for a low-technology niche in a high-technology war.”
In his epilogue, Raines draws broader conclusions about technology and institutional disagreements. The Army Air Forces’ opposition to organic Army Ground Forces aviation stemmed from a divergence in cultures after World War I. Examining the two headquarters and their respective institutions, Raines cites Elting E. Morison’s definition of military organizations: “societies organized around weapons systems.” For Arnold, focused on securing independence for the Army Air Forces, any competition – foreign or domestic – posed an existential threat. For the Army Ground Forces, in this instance the Field Artillery, what mattered was the system, the integration of equipment, doctrine, personnel, training, and organizational culture that together could achieve mission success. The enemy may have had an individual weapon of greater capability – perhaps the German 8.8cm flak gun – but it could not match the integration of an L-4 flown by trained field artillerymen using Signal Corps radios and working closely with fire direction center. This effort, gathering and processing real-time information from multiple independent systems, is a primitive semblance of today’s “systems of systems” approach, and proved devastating in combat.
Within the Army Air Forces, the weapon, principally the aircraft, was – perhaps still is – what mattered most. In the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, the Air Forces had the weapon they considered essential for a strategic bombing campaign– until unescorted bomber formations were decimated by German air defenses. The North American P-51 Mustang then became the weapon that allowed the B-17s to perform the strategic bombing mission, never mind the litany of tactics, smaller technologies, logistics, and coordination elements involved in getting a bomb from England to a target in Germany. While air officers trained on developing equipment and its purposes, Army ground officers trained on technique of use and the combined arms philosophy. Ergo, while the L-4 itself was technologically inferior to modern fighter, bomber, or reconnaissance aircraft, when incorporated into a system of doctrine, training, and technique, it proved overwhelmingly effective.
Contemporary Debates: Light Aircraft, Technology, and Institutions
Today it seems impossible to think of the U.S. Army without organic aviation. The field artillery’s Air-Observation-Post program offers important perspective for the OA-X discussion. Eyes of the Artillery persuasively argues that a transformation in the art of war created the necessity for reform. New, albeit low, technologies provided the essential means to an end – but not without a long and unnecessary institutional clash with an Army Air Forces committed to the latest and greatest aircraft.
The OA-X effort will continue for the foreseeable future. Congress included funding for the program in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act and discussions are underway about actual combat demonstrations of the competing aircraft. The Air Force sees vital gains in having a more cost-effective airframe to perform missions currently tasked to its bomber and fighter communities, and performance of the OA-X in combat conditions – and in coordination with ground forces – will provide a worthy test. From the Army’s perspective, close air support is considered vital to the combined arms approach, so vital that the potential retirement of the A-10 Thunderbolt II has raised calls for organic Army fixed-wing close air support. Ultimately, selection of an airframe likely to become a partner to the venerated and revered A-10 will revive an older bureaucratic cultural battle between the Air Force and the Army. Older inter-service debates about the use of airpower – and the technology underpinning it – will inevitably resurface.
More broadly, modern battlefields around the world are exposing the limitations of newer, more expensive technologies. Cheap, off-the-shelf drones are being found on battlefields like those in the Ukraine and the Middle East. These commercially available, relatively low-tech devices are expendable but replaceable and are yielding results. Elemental to the Defense Department’s third offset strategy, the U.S. continues to pursue the most advanced technologies possible, sparing no expense to create an all-encompassing weapon that will cost billions to field but will remain vulnerable to damage or destruction by low-technology proverbial “golden BBs.” Compared to the Air Force’s high performance fighter aircraft, the A-29 Super Tucano has proven itself capable of effective, economical combat operations against low-technology opposition.
Soviet Admiral of the Fleet Sergey Gorshkov supposedly had a sign in his office reading “‘Better’ is the enemy of ‘Good Enough.’” Better can be (and is) expensive in the field of research and development. U.S. men and women in service presumably would rather have “good enough” now, when they need it, rather than wait years for “better.” The military should strive for equipment second to none but never hesitate to field a low or “average” technology if it serves as a valuable element of a broader system. Given advances in artificial intelligence, drones, and remotely piloted aircraft, the Air Force will benefit from fielding an economical light attack aircraft.
Eyes of the Artillery is a classic case study of meeting a present necessity with the means at hand. This approach remains highly pertinent today as leaders seek to balance ways and means in the face of increasing and varied threats.
Dr. Frank Blazich is a curator of modern military history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. This article does not represent the views of his employer.
Image: U.S. Air Force