If my father’s generation wanted precision strike from the sea, they’d call up the ugly but effective Grumman A-6E Intruder. Looking like a drumstick with wings, the Intruder had a two-man crew, a radar-navigation system for night/all-weather guidance, and a FLIR system in a small turret under the nose for target identification. It was subsonic, had an approximately 600 nautical mile (a bit over 1,100 km) striking radius, and it could carry up to 18,000 lbs of bombs.
The long strike radius was a direct consequence of optimizations and the choice of subsonic speed. Grumman opted for subsonic speed, because even the big F-4 Phantom was subsonic when heavily laden with bombs. Accepting a lack of supersonic speed meant that more fuel efficient engines could be used, providing a long strike radius.
In the Intruder’s day, there were no smart weapons. The delivery vehicle was responsible for all of the precision (or lack thereof). This alternative is a lot easier, since the plane is a lot bigger and easier to fit sensors and targeting computers into. As a brief aside, this sort of precision-on-aircraft delivery of dumb munitions is still used by Russia, and was the delivery method of choice for the airstrikes in Syria.
The Intruder proved very effective in Vietnam, where it was the Navy’s most accurate bomber. It was also the primary Navy delivery platform for dropping laser guided bombs in Desert Storm, since the -E models had a laser designator in their FLIR turret.
Despite the Intruder fleet getting new wings in the early 90s and having a solid combat record, the Intruders were taken out of service in 1996. There really wasn’t a perfect replacement. It was supposed to be replaced by the A-12 Intruder II, a poster child for bad project management. This project was cancelled1 without anything new being proposed in its stead. In the late 90s, the Intruder’s role was supposed to be filled by F-14 Tomcats with LANTIRN pods, which could not match the payload capacity of the Intruder. In 2005, the Tomcats were also removed from naval service, and their roles were taken over by F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. These could not match the range of the Tomcat or Intruder (both of which have a strike radius of about 600 nautical miles).
I really don’t like the loss of strike radius in the newer platforms. Super Hornets are nice otherwise, but they could really use longer legs. Yes, I know tankers have worked in recent conflicts, but the Navy shouldn’t rely on them. Or else what’s the point of naval aviation? If you can make tankers work, you can probably make land-based strike work. The whole point of naval strike is to be deployable quickly, and to come from additional vectors. In Vietnam, carriers at Yankee Station brought strikes from the east, in addition to the USAF strikes from the west out of bases in Thailand. If they required tankers, that makes life a lot more difficult for the planners, since tankers are fat and vulnerable.
The Intruder was cancelled to reduce the number of airframe types in the fleet. Understandable, but likely premature. The limited wars of the 2000s and 2010s would have been a good match for the capabilities of the Intruder. The A-6E isn’t very survivable in a high-threat environment, but Al Qaeda doesn’t have any serious SAMs. Long range would also make for long loiter time, and adapting a plane for JDAMs isn’t exactly hard.
On the one hand, restarting A-6 production would be silly. On the other, they were taken out of service way too early, and there’s no real replacement out there.
- The A-12 is a program that even I think deserved to get cancelled. ↩