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Decades Before The A-10, This German Jet Fighter Defined Close Air Support
Guess again if you assumed close air support (CAS) jets were some kind of modern concept. Granted, the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II and its gargantuan 30mm rotary cannon are better at CAS than any other aircraft in history.

Decades Before The A-10, This German Jet Fighter Defined Close Air Support

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But strafing ground targets in fast jet aircraft is a practice that dates back over 70 years. Before the A-10, and even before the close air support doctrine had been formalized, the German Luftwaffe was hard at work developing an absolutely colossal cannon into what was to become the very first operational jet fighter.

The Messerschmitt Me-262 Schwalbe (Swallow) was a watershed moment in the history of aviation. It was the product of German science and engineering that was at least five to ten years ahead of Allied technology at points throughout the war.

The brutally fast, agile jet fighter originated from a design first devised in 1938, before the formal beginning of the Second World War. The engines that powered it also had their origins before the war, the venerable Junkers Jumo 004 turbojet. The combined thrust of twin 004 units propelled the jet to speeds 100 mph (160 kph) faster than any British, Soviet, or American piston-engined fighter.

As tank battalions on the eastern and western fronts squeezed in from both sides, the decision was made to mount a gun on the Me-262 that could deal with the ground threat from the Allied nations. What was needed was a weapon powerful enough to penetrate the hull armor of even the most hearty Allied medium tanks. We're talking about the Soviet T-34 and the American M4 Sherman. Such a gun would almost assuredly shred an Allied bomber to pieces in one shot as well.

Messerschmitt engineers must have thought there's no better way to take out a tank than with a gun designed to be mounted in a tank. Enter the positively colossal 50mm Rheinmetall BK-5 cannon. A brute of a weapon that weighed a scale destroying 1,200 pounds (540 kg) and fired 50×419mm custom tooled cartridges at 45 rounds per minute.

Not that the BK-5 could ever achieve that rate of fire, as the magazine drum only held 21 rounds at any given time. Its original purpose was mounted in the Panzer III tank as the KwK 39 tank gun as featured in famous tank battles like Operation Barbarossa and The Battle of Kursk.

Let's compare these figures to that of the more familiar A-10 Thunderbolt. Unlike the 262, the A-10 was designed from the ground up as a close air support and ground attack aircraft. Its GAU-8 Avenger cannon may not be as enormous as the German Me-262, but it makes up for it is far superior ammunition capacity of over 1,000 high explosive rounds.

Lessons learned in aircraft like the BK-5 equipped Me-262 taught engineers that the recoil of such a heavy cannon is enough to throw the pilot's aim off balance. The A-10 compensates by having its gun mounted laterally offset from the centerline of the airframe.

In either case, one hit from either of these aircraft's main guns is enough to shred just about anything out of the sky or on the ground. BK-5 cannons were also trialed on the Messerschmitt 410 twin engine attack plane. Its thought that well over 100 American bombers towards the end of the war were shot down at its hands.

This came at the cost of pathetic ammo reserves and a muzzle flash bright enough to blind its pilots at night. The gun protruded at least one meter beyond the aircraft's nose, a dead giveaway to enemy pilots that it was the slower, less agile ground attack variant. The gun was also tested on the Junkers Ju-88 as an alternative testbed aircraft during the war.

Ultimately, no more than 300 MK-5 Cannons were produced between 1944 and May 1945. Failing to make an impactful dent in the armored invasion force that ultimately battered the German military into unconditional surrender. While ahead of their time, the BK-5 and the Me-262 were two machines that didn't entirely exist in harmony at all times. Just listen to what Reich Marshal of the Luftwaffe Hermann Goering said of the project upon his capture by the American Army.

"You might find around Germany some jet airplanes equipped with anti-tank guns. Don't blame me for such monstrosities. This was done on the explicit orders of the Fuehrer. Hitler knew nothing about the air. He may have known about the Army or Navy, but absolutely nothing about the air. He even considered the Me-262 to be a bomber, and he insisted it should be called a bomber."

Such oversights like that eventually led to the downfall of the Third Reich. Meanwhile, the idea of attaching a monstrous cannon to a jet attacker took a few decades more to mature. The end result is the phenomenal A-10 we all know and adore today.


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