Because they are typically deployed as close air support to ground forces, their role is tactical rather than strategic, operating at the front of the battle rather than against targets deeper in the enemy's rear. As such, they are often attached to and in the direct command and control structures of army units as opposed to air force units, though tactical air forces attached to army formations are still an organic part of the air force and ultimately under air-force command. A number of names have or are used for ground-attack aircraft: attack aircraft, fighter-bomber, tactical fighter, tank-buster, tactical bomber, strafer, strike aircraft etc. A light strike aircraft is another category, based on adapted trainers or other light aircraft.
The NATO reporting names for Soviet/Russian ground attack aircraft classified them as "fighters" instead of "bombers" possibly, because they were often only variants of fighter aircraft, but always similar in size, range and weapons to fighters.
Between the World Wars, as the United States embraced the role of global power with the United States Marine Corps as its preferred force for military intervention, marine aviation pioneered ground attack and close air support tactics in the Banana Wars. Marine Aviators pioneered the technique of dive bombing during interventions in Haiti and Nicaragua.
At the start of World War II engine power was scarce and aircraft had to be tailored to individual roles. Ground attack aircraft during this era were generally created for the role, one that was considered largely unimportant and therefore saw little development. Perhaps the only early-war aircraft in this niche was the Henschel Hs 123, a biplane. The Germans worked on a suitable replacement and eventually delivered the Henschel Hs 129, which featured a steel-armored cockpit and windows made of bulletproof glass. Only small numbers were built, however, as the Germans widely used the more flexible Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bomber in the ground attack role. A more famous example is the Soviet Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik, a light bomber that was adapted into the ground attack role with it armoured fuselage, powerful artillery and possibility of using air-to-ground missiles. More than 43,000 Ilyushin Il-2 were built through World War II. Stalin credited the Il-2 with winning the war.
As engine power improved, roughly doubling over the course of the war, even the average day fighter was more than capable enough to carry out the ground attack role, and some of the most successful designs were slight modifications of existing designs. One of the most successful of these was the RAF's Hawker Typhoons, although they deployed a variety of other aircraft due to changing availability. The Germans made a series of adapted versions of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, the F and G series, serving roughly the same purpose. The same was true of the USAAF, who moved former front-line fighters into the ground attack role during the war, notably the P-38 Lightning and P-47 Thunderbolt, as newer aircraft took up the air superiority role.
While machine guns and cannon were sufficient against infantry and light vehicles, and one or two small bombs could be easily fitted to most fighters, for operations against tanks heavier weapons such as the 40 mm Vickers S gun or high explosive rockets (such as the RP-3 60 lb rocket) were needed. The former equipped the Hawker Hurricane to good effect in North Africa Campaign, the latter was used by many RAF aircraft among them the Typhoon. Both the US and Soviets also used a variety of rockets in this role. The Germans also deployed rockets, as well as the first cluster bombs.
In the immediate post war era the piston engined ground attack aircraft remained useful - Royal Navy Hawker Sea Fury fighters and the US Vought F4U Corsair and Douglas A-1 Skyraider operated in the Korea with the latter plane effective into the Vietnam conflict. The long loiter times of the piston powered planes gave an advantage over thirsty jet planes.
In most of the post-World War II era air forces have been increasingly reluctant to develop combat aircraft specifically for ground attack. Although close air support and interdiction remain crucial to the modern battlefield, attack aircraft are less glamorous than fighters, and both pilots and military planners have a certain well-cultivated contempt for 'mud-movers.' More practically, the extra cost of a dedicated ground attack aircraft is harder to justify as opposed to having multi-role aircraft.
In the late 1960s the US Air Force requested a dedicated air support plane that became the Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II. It eventually became a primarily anti-armor weapon with limited capability in the interdiction and tactical bombing role, and even in the anti-tank role it was met with mixed feelings. However, the A-10's performance during Operation Desert Storm negated these criticisms. Current US doctrine increasingly emphasizes the use of US Army helicopters for close air support and anti-tank missions. The Soviets' similar Sukhoi Su-25 (Frogfoot) found greater success in the flying artillery role, although it, too, shifted to anti-armor use in later versions and has largely been phased out in favor of 'fast mover' fighter-bomber versions of the MiG-29 and Su-27.
Examples of modern ground attack aircraft include the A-10 Thunderbolt II, Sukhoi Su-7, Sukhoi Su-17, Sukhoi Su-25 (Frogfoot), Nanchang Q-5. Ground attack has otherwise become the domain of converted trainers like the BAC Strikemaster, BAE Hawk, and Cessna A-37.
Under the Key West Agreement which governs the allocation of aircraft between the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force, fixed-wing ground-attack aircraft were generally allocated to the Air Force, while attack helicopters were generally allocated to the Army. The Army, wishing to have its own resources to support its troops in combat and faced with a lack of Air Force enthusiasm for the ground-attack role, developed the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter for ground-attack roles such as destroying enemy tanks and supporting troops in combat.
One concern involving the Apache arose when a unit of these helicopters was very slow to deploy during U.S. military involvement in Kosovo. The Apache, which is the main alternative for the same airborne anti-tank role in the U.S. military as the A-10, ended up performing more poorly than anticipated, while the A-10 performed well in anti-tank roles in the Gulf War and in Iraq. Indeed, in the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, a unit of AH-64 Apaches was severely mauled by the Republican Guard division, Hammurabi.
According to the Army Times, the Army is shifting its doctrine to favor ground-attack aircraft over attack helicopters for this role because ground-attack helicopters have proved to be highly vulnerable to small-arms fire. The U.S. Marines have noted similar problems.
Officially, the U.S. Air Force planned to replace the only dedicated ground-attack aircraft currently in U.S. service, the A-10, with its new "Joint Strike Fighter", the F-35 Lightning II. But, facing political concerns that the new fighters were not designed for the ground-attack role that had proven particularly useful in Iraq and Afghanistan, a plan to decommission the A-10 has been replaced with a plan to upgrade the existing aircraft with improved electronics extending the service life of the planes until as late as 2028. The U.S. Air Force has not commissioned any new designs for this role (in part, out of concern for the F-35 program).
The other major complication to planes of military forces to purchase new ground-attack aircraft is uncertainty over the degree to which manned fixed wing aircraft may be replaced by unmanned combat drones in this role, a possibility illustrated by the armed Predator drone which has been used in this capacity.