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A Dangerous Business: Forward Air Control in Southeast Asia

During World War II, air power provided valuable support to American ground troops. However, air attacks against nearby enemy ground forces, or close air support (CAS), required detailed coordination with the ground commanders to avoid hitting friendly forces. At first, the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) assigned air liaison officers (ALOs) to the ground forces, and they used radio-equipped jeeps to direct air strikes against targets. To gain a broader perspective of the entire battlefield, USAAF pilots started using liaison aircraft to control CAS attacks from the air. Nicknamed Horsefly, these forward air controllers (FACs), maintained radio contact with the ground troops and the attacking aircraft, and they accurately directed air attacks. In addition, the Horseflies looked for enemy targets behind the front lines.

This effective forward air control system reappeared in the Korean War, with FACs nicknamed Mosquitoes. However, they were disbanded after the war as the U.S. Air Force turned toward an all-jet, nuclear armed force designed to fight the Cold War in the mid-1950s. Emphasizing the aerial interdiction of enemy supply lines, the USAF's tactical forces-believing that slow-flying attack aircraft could not survive over the modern battlefield-downplayed the CAS mission and spent little effort training FACs.

The guerrilla-style war waged by communists in Southeast Asia during the early 1960s revived the FAC mission. Pilots flying fast fighter bombers had difficulty distinguishing friendly troops and civilians from enemy forces. An ALO riding in a radio-equipped jeep could control air strikes, but the rough jungle terrain hid communist movements. Therefore, FACs flying over the battlefield became the essential element in directing the United States' overwhelming air power against the elusive communist guerrillas. 

Click on the following links to learn more about Forward Air Control in Southeast Asia.

The Advisory Years
South Vietnam - "In-Country"
FAC Aircraft
The "Other War" - "Out-of-Country"
Fast FACs
The Legacy
Capt. Hilliard A. Wilbanks
Capt. Steven L. Bennett
Wilson Hurley: Painting the FACs in Action
Forward Air Controller: O-2A Under Heavy Ground Fire in Southeast Asia

Click here to return to the South Vietnam: Build-Up and Engagement Overview.