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TRIPLE-A: The Evolution of Anti-Aircraft Artillery

Jeffrey Syken

The first recorded use of what has come to be known as “Anti-Aircraft Artillery” (a/k/a “Triple-A”) dates back to the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). In September 1870, an enterprising French aeronaut transported nearly three-hundred pounds of mail to a town fifty-two miles distant, as the crow flies, via a coal-gas filled balloon. This began regular balloon flights to bring mail and people into and out of the besieged city and to maintain communication with French forces in the surrounding countryside. An enraged Bismarck promised to shoot captured balloonists as spies, but this only led to more French volunteers for the dangerous missions (given the highly explosive coal-gas). Rather than just take pot shots with small arms and elevated field artillery, Krupp produced a 37mm breech-loading “Balloon-Defense Gun” (“Ballonabwehrkanone”) to solve the problem once and for all. Mounted on the bed of a carriage, it was highly mobile and met with moderate success. The die was cast for greater things to come.

By the time WWI began in mid-1914, aviation was still in its infancy and the thought of shooting planes out of the sky with specialized weapons was not a priority, to say the least. However, as the war progressed and airplanes became ever more sophisticated - and deadly, this new third dimension of warfare demanded that measures be taken to shoot down aircraft before they could bomb, strafe and/or reconnoiter. For the most part, it was a matter of improvisation and dumb luck when it came to AAA. Field guns such as the French 75mm were adapted for the purpose and some attempts were made at aiding the artillery pieces (i.e. “Correctors”) in the very difficult task of hitting a moving target traveling at relatively high-speeds in three dimensions. Although AAA fared poorly overall, many a low-flying plane met their end by way of machine-gun fire from the ground and the artillerymen were learning the secrets of “leading” a target and fused projectiles. By the end of the war, AAA was considered the lesser relation of field artillery and was relegated to the backburner – but not for long.

In the summer of 1921, a bold, confident Army Air Corps pilot and air warfare innovator named Billy Mitchell demonstrated the power of the airplane against the captured Dreadnought’s of the Kaiser’s Imperial Navy (albeit they were defenseless and stationary targets). It seemed the days of the battleship’s rule over the sea were over and the airplane would reign supreme in the next war. Ironically, Mitchell’s success spurred the need to find more and better ways of shooting down these very same airplanes. Most notable was the contribution of Elmer Sperry and his Gun Director technology. In the interwar period better, more accurate AA guns would be developed along with other technologies such as Acoustic Location and RADAR. It all came to a head during WWII when AAA began making the difference between victory and defeat, especially in the Pacific theater where carrier warfare pitted planes against ships. Ironically, the written-off battleship would come into its own as an AAA platform par excellence. Held as secret as the atomic bomb, the VT (a/k/a “Proximity”) fuse would turn the tide of battle on both land and sea. Vietnam, the Falklands and Gulf War/s have demonstrated the importance of AAA in modern warfare. It appears the next generation of AAA will, literally, move at the speed of light.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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