The U.S. Air Force Wanted to Turn Navy Sub-Hunters Into Attack Aircraft

AS-2D would have sprinkled thousands of tiny bombs across Vietnam

In 1968, the U.S. Air Force canceled a program to convert old Navy submarine hunters into attack aircraft. The flying branch had spent two years trying to get the planes ready for Vietnam.

The project was part of a larger effort to find aircraft that could chase guerrillas around Southeast Asia. The Air Force’s fighter jets and long-range bombers—the bulk of its combat aircraft—were best in a nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union.

These high-performance aircraft, often zipping around at great speeds high above the battlefield, had a tough time finding small insurgent bands on the ground. At night, the situation was even worse.

As the war in Vietnam escalated, so too did the Air Force’s effort to find better warplanes for the conflict. One proposal was to turn old Navy S-2 Tracker anti-submarine planes into ground-attackers.

At the time, the two services were already working on another aircraft exchange. In 1963, the Air Force started getting propeller-driven A-1 Skyraider fighter-bombers from the Navy—and quickly sent them to South Vietnam.

The Navy’s twin-engine Grumman S-2 appeared to be a perfect for the Air Force. The plane already could carry weapons—and Grumman had rigged certain variants for complex electronics.

A U.S. Navy S-2A Tracker. Navy photo

The Air Force felt it easily could swap out the sub-chasing systems for night-vision optics and a high-tech radar, according to a description of the program we acquired through the Freedom of Information Act.

The flying branch wanted to modify the Tracker’s internal bomb bay to carry special dispensers for around 2,000 small bomblets—each packing the explosive power of a hand grenade. The Air Force S-2 would have carried additional cluster bombs or other weapons—like napalm, rockets or machine guns—under its wings.

The Air Force also wanted to add armor plating around the cockpit, fuel tanks and engines. A special dark paint job no doubt would have topped off the final conversion.

The U.S. Air Force planned to add armor, seen at left, and dispensers full of bomblets—depicted on the right. Air Force art

Unfortunately, the program quickly ran into problems. The Air Force’s biggest problem appears to have been just getting the planes at all.

While the Navy seems to have been more than willing to help, the S-2 was still in regular service and the sailing branch could not easily part with them. By contrast, the Navy was pulling its Skyraiders from active duty and had no problem simply giving them to the Air Force.

No one could seem to figure out which S-2s the Navy should transfer. The Air Force at first expected to get S-2E models, then S-2Gs and finally settled on two S-2Ds—all in the space of a year.

Grumman was supposed to start converted the first plane in August 1966. But Tactical Air Command warned that the planes wouldn’t be ready for Vietnam for almost two more years, according to a monthly program summary we acquired.

Timing wasn’t the only concern. TAC, along with Pacific Air Forces and the Air Force’s commanders in Southeast Asia, complained that the new aircraft would be too slow and vulnerable to enemy anti-aircraft guns.

Less than a year later in early 1968, the Air Force finally called it quits before either of the planes had complete conversion to the planned AS-2D model.

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