October 2017

The OV-10 Bronco

Volume 101, Issue 10
THE OV-10 BRONCO: Designed for Counterinsurgency and the Vietnam War. By The OV- 10 Bronco Association. Fort Worth, TX: The OV-10 Bronco Association, 2017.

In the passage below, Col Wesley Fox describes the timely and fortuitous arrival of close air support during Operation DEWEY CANYON on 22 February 1969. His company, Alpha Company, 1/9 (1st Bn, 9th Marines), was fighting through an NVA ambush in dense, triple-canopy jungle. The enemy, a reinforced NVA company, was well-hidden and well-fortified in a bunker complex. On a ridge to the rear of Alpha 1/9, more enemy troops were positioned with RPGs, machineguns, and mortars. The OV-10 crew, as LtCol Smith said, was briefed and had the situational awareness to react immediately if the weather cleared. When a hole through the clouds appeared, the OV-10 crews from VMO-6 attacked, firing rockets into the target and marking it. They then directed the Huey gunship into the attack. The Huey destroyed the enemy machine guns and tipped the battle in favor of the Marines. This is a dramatic instance of close air support arriving at a critical juncture. It is just one instance, of many, in which OV-10 crews provided life-saving air support for Marines and soldiers during Vietnam.

The OV-10 served an essential role as an air-ground interface in Vietnam and after, including combat in DESERT STORM. The Bronco remained in the Marine Corps inventory until 1994 when it was retired, “a victim of aging airframes, diminishing spare parts inventories, and the fiscal realities of the 1990s.”1 It continues to serve in a number of other nations’ militaries and in support of a few U.S. domestic agencies down to the present day.

The OV-10 Bronco Association has published a short book, entitled The OV-10 Bronco: Designed for Counterinsurgency and the Vietnam War, that gives an excellent description of the OV-10’s developmental history and combat service in Vietnam. It has no single author, instead written by Marines, Sailors, and Airmen who actually flew and maintained the OV-10. This book is an outgrowth of the Association’s paper presented at the October 2015 Violent Skies Vietnam Air War Symposium. Their paper was also the basis for an article published in the Gazette that earned the prestigious Marine Corps Heritage Foundation Geiger Award in 2017.

The OV-10 is unique in that it was an aircraft conceived by Marines to carry out Marine-type missions. It began in the minds of Majs K.P. Rice and W.H. Beckett, both aviators and veterans of the Korean War (Beckett had also flown F4U Corsairs in World War II). In 1960, they put their ideas into a formal paper entitled “Light, Light Support Aircraft.” Their intent was to create an aircraft suitable for limited war situations. Their concept caught the attention of the appropriate people, and their aircraft successfully navigated the complex and forbidding DOD acquisition process. This was no small accomplishment, especially considering that, at that time, aircraft development prioritized the fast, sleek, and powerful. The OV-10 was certainly an anomaly, but Rice and Beckett’s belief that there would be a need for such an aircraft in the “foxholes of Korea, the jungles of Indochina, and the sands of Israel and Jordan, [where] war proceeds as usual,” proved correct. There was a need for such an aircraft in the very near future.

Once in the DOD acquisition system, their concept, blended with other requirements, became known as the LARA/COIN (light armed reconnaissance aircraft/counterinsurgency). The LARA/COIN aircraft’s progression through the development process got a big boost from the situation then brewing in Southeast Asia where a serious insurgency was in the offing.

The Bronco, driven by turboprop engines, had a short wing span and rugged landing gear, these qualities allowed for rough field use. It had long “legs,” allowing it to operate over the battlefield for an extended time, up to six hours. This allowed an aircrew to get very situationally aware of the battlespace. The large glass cockpit, although creating greenhouse-like heat, provided for great visibility. Unlike the observation aircraft it replaced, the Cessna O-1 “Bird Dog,” the Bronco could carry a respectful load of ordnance including bombs, napalm, rockets, a gun pod, and air-to-air missiles.

OV-10s had the ability to operate from carrier decks without the assistance of catapults or arresting gear. (This was actually how Marine Observation Squadron 1 [VMO-1] got to the Persian Gulf War in 1990.) OV-10s had a robust communications suite. The aircrew could talk to ground troops, CAS aircraft, artillery, and naval gunfire at the same time. Most important was the crew. The rear seat occupant, the AO (aerial observer), was a combat-experienced ground officer. To become an AO, he received formal fire support training. Over the battlefield, the AO became the eye-in-the-sky advisor to Marines fighting the ground battle as well as a supporting fires coordinator. The OV-10, therefore, married air and ground expertise in one cockpit.

The Bronco first flew in 1965. The Marine Corps and Air Force received their first OV-10As on 23 February 1968. By July 1968, Marines were flying them in combat in Vietnam, first by VMO-2 then a few months later by VMO-6. The OV-10 crews performed visual reconnaissance, FAC-A (forward air control-airborne), and artillery and naval gunfire control and spotting missions in support of Marines. OV-10s are best known for their role as a FAC-A platform. VMO-2 and OV-10s were usually the first responder to a troops-in-contact in Vietnam. They went out armed to mark targets, but their armament, usually rockets and 20mm cannons, was available to provide immediate steel-on-target until fast-movers, artillery, or naval gunfire was employed. When an OV-10 was overhead, the enemy went to ground, knowing that a world of death was just a radio call away.

The Air Force and Navy also flew OV-10s in Vietnam. The Navy had one squadron, VAL-4 (Navy Light Attack Squadron 4), the “Black Ponies.” The Black Ponies, the only squadron the Navy had landbased in the war, operated in the Mekong Delta region in a pure attack role. Specifically, they supported Navy riverine craft and later troops of the South Vietnamese Army.

Like the Marine Corps, the Air Force used their Broncos as FAC-A platforms, supporting troops in combat. They flew in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Air Force OV-10 squadrons, called TASS (tactical air support squadrons) continued operations in the latter countries well after the U.S. had removed its forces from Vietnam following the 1973 Paris Accords.

The Air Force employed the OV-10 in early precision weapons experimentation and operations. Called Pave Nail, laser-equipped OV-10s, of the 23rd TASS in 1970 and 1971, were laser-designating targets for precision bombs dropped by strike fighters. The Marine Corps also pressed forward in aviation weapons development. In 1970, the Commandant, Gen Leonard F. Chapman, ordered development of a night targeting system for OV-10s. By the end of that year, the NOGS (night observation gunship system) was ready for combat testing. The NOGS included a forward-looking infrared sensor with a laser designator, a 20mm gun turret, and two wing-mounted external stores pylons. In May 1971, two Marine NOGS-equipped OV-10s deployed to Vietnam. Because Marine units were pulling out of Vietnam, they operated with VAL-4, effectively testing and validating the NOGS in real-world operations to good effect.

After Vietnam, the OV-10, now mounted with bigger engines and the NOS (night observation system, the 20mm turret had been removed) continued to serve the Marine Corps in counterdrug operations and deployed for combat in DESERT STORM. The California Department of Forestry uses OV-10Ds to this day for monitoring forestlands and firefighting command and control.

The Bronco’s operation as a U.S. combat aircraft is evidently not over. Two OV-10G+s, called “Black Ponies” in honor of their Vietnam predecessors, deployed to Iraq in 2015 to support U.S. Navy special operations against ISIS. Their missions were described as “resounding successes.” This begs an important question: if the OV-10 began life as a Marine Corps light attack aircraft for limited wars and counterinsurgencies, and this remains the character of the current fight, would not such an aircraft be useful now?

OV-10 Bronco is recommended reading for all Marines. It is a thorough account of a born and bred Marine aircraft, and it gives a good overview of the unique genesis and development of the OV-10 and its Vietnam operations with the Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force. Well-written and illustrated with a plethora of quality photographs, diagrams, and charts, the book is interesting reading, educational, and visually appealing.

 

Dr. Allison is the Oral Historian, Marine Corps History Division.