"Aviation is fine as a sport. But as an instrument of war, it is worthless."
- – French General Ferdinand Foch just before World War I, demonstrating that men of vision aren't always right.
Combat Aircraft are dedicated military aircraft used in warfare. The vast majority includes fixed-wing aircraft and rotorcraft, though there are some that are neither (such as Zepplins) or both (such as Tiltrotors).
Much like with Tanks, as soon as people figured out powered flight, various nations attempted to weaponize them. Both got their big break during WWI, as mechanized warfare began to emerge. By WWII, aircraft designed for dedicated combat roles began to emerge, developing into the types used today.
During WWI, biplanes armed with machineguns were deployed to attack or defend observation balloons, which were used as spotters for ground artillery. Being made of wood and unable to fly fast or high up, these early aircraft were also vulnerable to ground weapons. They were also used to defend against Zeppelins, which were among the first strategic bombers, though before incendiary bullets were invented it wasn't easy to bring down a rigid airship simply by poking it full of holes. That said during and before world war one there was actually a fair bit of skepticism from generals that airplanes were going to be any good. See the top quote for example. Looking back some of these quotes are unintentionally hilarious given how powerful air power is nowadays, but looking forward with only the example of the canvas and wood planes of the time, it's not hard to see how they might think that.
By WWII, airplanes took a leading role in combat operations, both in major combat operations such as the Battle of Britain, as well as providing combat support for intelligence and deep strike operations. More advanced defenses had to be developed for faster and higher-flying aircraft; thus radar was invented to track the position of aircraft long before they came into visual range.
During the Cold War, aircraft development continued to be refined; while most ground-support operations were now relegated to the newly developed helicopter, airplanes took on a strategic role in nuclear deterrence strategies - at least until ICBMs made them effectively moot. Nonetheless, they still had value in intelligence and rapid response roles. As missile technology improved, it was believed that dogfighting was no longer a viable strategy given that aircraft could be taken out beyond visual range, and thus for a period of time fighters lacked any guns, as seen on the F-4 Phantom. They were brought back, however, as they realized that this was a problem if the aircraft in question needed to be identified first, and that getting within visual range was too close for missiles. This also lead to the development of holographic and computer-aided gunsights, as well as other advanced displays to the cockpit.
Military aircraft frequently spur many advanced new technologies that push the limit of what powered flight is capable of. Aircraft intended for use with aircraft carriers often have special requirements, such as a hook for catching the arresting wire and a minimum distance for takeoff. This lead to the development of VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) technology as early as the 1960s, as seen on the AV-8 Harrier and F-35 Lightning II, where an aircraft can redirect its thrust downward to takeoff and land vertically, albeit this limits the aircraft's flight time quite a bit as it consumes a lot of fuel. Stealth aircraft, meanwhile, started taking off a decade later when it was discovered that certain airframe shapes could be used to reduce and aircraft's radar profile, thus making it harder to detect. The F-117 Nighthawk attempted to accomplish this with the wonkiest airframe shape imaginable, but more recent aircraft are able to accomplish the same feats with a more conventional layout such as the F-22 Raptor, or the more radical "flying wing" design used by the B-2 Spirit.
- Handguns: Though machine guns later became standard midway through World War 1, the first dogfight ever, during the Mexican Civil War in 1913, was undertaken by two mercenary pilots with handguns. No one was hurt, but the idea of plinking away at your target with a pistol while flying your plane with your other hand lasted through the early years of World War 1. Incredibly, there is also the story of Lt. Baggett who, while parachuting after being shot down, took down a Ki-43 in the Pacific War with a 1911, probably in a strike of karma getting a lucky head shot on the pilot who was trying to strafe survivors.
- Bricks: In the early months of World War 1, ammunition could be scarce and pilots were limited by the strict size limits of their planes to whatever they could fit in their hands. Hence the brick. Inaccurate and short-ranged, but more than heavy enough to put a hole in the wing of an early fighter.
- Flechette: Basically a big metal dart dropped out of a plane. The dart gains speed as it drops until it hits the ground with enough force to pulp anything it hits.
- Machineguns: The first effective weapons attached to aircraft were basic machineguns. Originally they were manned by a secondary gunner on a swivel mount that couldn’t shoot forward, due to the propeller being in the way. Later, the pilot became the gunner, and any aircraft that had a nose propeller had to be outfitted with a synchronization gear, which adjusted the machine gun’s rate of fire so that it couldn’t shoot out the plane’s own propellers (at least in theory, for such early systems were... temperamental). Machine gun pods were frequently used on larger aircraft for defense against enemy fighters, mainly on bombers. Machine guns were eventually phased out as even the heavy-duty ones like the M2/DSHK are simply too short-ranged for modern dogfighting. Now they are used as utility, cargo or light recon helicopter door guns.
- Cannons: Experimented with briefly during the First World War to little effect, the cannon came into its own during World War 2. Twenty-millimeter autocannons became a popular replacement for machine guns, in response to a new generation of sturdier all-metal fighters. Larger aircraft in particular could survive many bullet impacts so long as nothing critical was struck, whereas explosive munitions could do a lot more damage. Bombers could be reliably eliminated with a few cannon shots. However, slow-firing cannons were less useful in a dogfight, so some aircraft would mount both cannons and guns. During the 1950s, and before the invention of air-to-air missiles, cannons proliferated - the idea was that aiming is less important if you're shooting out a whole lot of dakka.
- Rotary Cannons: Because the new jet fighters flew too fast to be reliably hit with machine guns, the solution was to use equally fast rotary guns such as the venerable M61 Vulcan 20mm rotary cannon. These have become the standard secondary armament on fighters, as missiles do most of the work now.
- Missiles: A wide variety of missiles are used for a multiplicity of roles, such as fast and light heat-seeking missiles for bringing down aircraft, or slower and heavier but more powerful anti-tank missiles for ground warfare. These saw their first baby steps at the very end of World War 2, but didn't come into their own until the development of effective computer technology in the 1960s.
- Rockets: During the Second World War, unguided rockets were the classic tank-busting weapon. Cheap, accurate and hard-hitting, they were ideal for short-range dive bombing. In the 50s, they supplemented cannon as yet another 'maximum dakka' weapon because of their fast rate of fire. Nowadays, such munitions are mostly used as an area-of-effect weapon by Attack helicopters, which can carry about a dozen or so 70mm rockets for anti-infantry and light anti-armor combat.
- Bombs: The first ground-attack weapons carried on planes, early bombs were literally hand-thrown by World War 1 bomber crews, though later they would be mounted in racks on the underside of planes. Bombs come in a very large variety of sizes and munitions, but traditionally they were carried either as a single munition on smaller dive-bombers to attack a specific target, or in large quantities on large bombers for attacking areas of strategic value. Both strategies are meant to overcome the inherent inaccuracy of dropping bombs from high altitudes. However, new JDAM bombs are capable of self-correcting in flight, making them far more accurate. Previously, the primary tactic of avoiding bombs was "duck and cover because they are likely to miss". After guidance became a thing, things started to rapidly suck whatever poor bastard who is being targeted.
- Torpedoes: instead of bombs, it was easier to equip light bombers with torpedoes for naval warfare. Torpedo bombing was always a risky business, as it involved flying low and fast towards a heavily-armed target while carrying an incredibly heavy payload. The British perfected it early on in the Second World War, and it was quickly adopted by, among others, the Japanese. In modern times, fighter jets don't use them, but some helicopters and bombers carry them alongside seamines for aerial deployment to ruin any Navy's day. Additionally more modern naval mines are effectively torpedo turrets waiting for someone to come along with the wrong IFF.
- Propellers: The first means of powered flight, propellers were used up until after WWII for all aircraft; by then Jet engine technology had been developed, which became the dominant means of propulsion due to being faster and having a higher flight ceiling. However, propellers are still used on certain kinds of heavy aircraft that do not require to travel at higher speed, as they have better efficency. Drones are also usually equipped with propellers as jet drones are unnecessary overkill against most drone targets (those being countries with shitty old AA equipment and insurgents). Most propellers engines today are actually a hybrid of traditional propeller engines and jet engines, wherein they operate in the same principle as turbofans but use the generated thrust to spin propeller blades instead of pushing air out at high speed.
- Jets: the main engines used on most aircraft today: civilian ones tend to favor fuel economy where military ones often have a post-combustion system for when you really need that extra burst of thrust (at the cost of being fuel guzzlers, but hey...) A few specialized variants exist:
- Ramjets: designed specifically for use at high speed by using the speed of the aircraft itself to suck in air, instead of having to use its own power to suck air in with turbofans. These are used on some models of interceptors and recon craft.
- VTOL: Verticals Takeoff and Landing. Jets with VTOL can redirect thrust downward so that they don’t need to use as much runway space, allowing them to deploy from smaller aircraft carriers and other non traditional runways. VTOL consumes a lot of extra fuel, so it’s only present on very specific aircraft and only engaged when necessary.
- Rotors: Essentially a propeller turned upwards. While not as fast as fixed-wing craft, their ability to hover allows them to takeoff and land from any flat ground as small as the aircraft itself, as well as provide continuous fire support to ground forces. A traditional helicopter requires an additional tail rotor to prevent the helicopter from spinning out of control, but other systems include a secondary lift rotor spinning in the opposite direction.
- Tiltrotor: a hybrid rotorcraft that can transition from hover to propeller modes by rotating the engines, as used on the V-22 Osprey, though this has proven to be quite tricky to implement for a number of aerodynamic and structural reasons, though it seems to have paid off. Also tough on rookie pilots due to essentially being both a prop plane and a helicopter at the same time.
- Ornithopter:While no maned military Ornithopter has taken flight, it shows up enough in fantasy to be worth a quick mention. While a helicopter works by spinning the wing, (that's what "helico" means), an Ornithopter works via flapping. While unworkable for manned craft as a whole, smaller unmanned designs do have potential.
- Compound Helicopter: The Tiltrotor isn’t the only hybrid helicopter system out there; the Conpound helicopter combines the top rotor of the traditional helicopter, with a propeller in the rear for forward thrust, as well as small wingtips for added lift. This allows the helicopter to fly forward more quickly and reduces the load on the top rotor. So far this has only been used on experimental aircraft.
- Rockets: Only one rocket-powered fighter exists, the Me 163 Komet, which proved very difficult to control and had to glide down to land after its fuel was spent. However, it was extremely fast and had a very high flight ceiling. Rockets are mostly used nowadays as disposable takeoff assistance called RATO or JATO, usually for heavy aircraft on short runways.
- Balloon: airships were only used in combat during WWI, when air defense were still quite primitive. The infamous Zeppelins in particular carried out bombing raids in Britain, making them quite a terrifying sight to behold. Even bulletholes did little to stop them, as rigid airships have the same internal pressure as atmosphere, causing them to leak hydrogen too slowly to matter. However, as the Hindenburg disaster quite definitively showed, hydrogen airships have a nasty tendency of exploding if even a small amount of static discharge is present, causing them to disappear from warfare altogether, with the exception of the "Barrage balloon", which is more like a flying landmine since the cables it carries can cause damage to low flying aircraft (ground attackers), which could be pretty nasty at night (at least one German bomber was quite literally sliced in half during the Battle of Britain). Even after replacing the hydrogen with helium, airships proved too slow and vulnerable to be of much use compared to newer and more advanced aircraft. They saw some use as submarine chasers and to provide RADAR to Coast Guard units in WW2, and experimentally as "airborne aircraft carriers". The latter of which mostly did nothing but demonstrate how stupidly difficult the entire concept was to implement.
Fighters are the predominant aircraft type in most air forces; they mainly engage other aircraft, though depending on their design, they may have some flexibility in their combat capabilities:
- Air Superiority: These fighters are dedicated solely to fight enemy aircraft. As such, they have enhanced aerodynamic performance and will outmanuever other types of aircraft. This comes at the cost of a lack of ground-attack capability. Because they are more expensive to produce, and are used solely for taking airspace, most air forces use a limited number of these.
- Interceptor: Also called point-defense fighter. They were a key defensive component of nuclear deterence back when long-range bombers where the only nuclear weapons platform. While they had limited range, they were extremely fast, and thus could intercept any aircraft that threatened their airspace. With the introduction of ICBMs, they were reduced to keeping out enemy spy aircraft, until ground-based SAMs made them obsolete entirely, the role having been folded into Air Superiority fighters when they don't carry Air-to-Ground ordnance, which is pretty much all the time.
- Multi-Role: Most fighters today fall under this category. They are general all-rounders and can take both airborne and ground-based weaponry, depending on the mission profile. As technology improves, the once new Air Superiority fighters will eventually be upgraded for service as Multi-Role fighters (i.e. F-15 Strike Eagle & F-22 Raptor) to get more use out of the old generation.
- Strike Fighter: A type of multi-role fighter that puts more emphasis on ground-attack strikes, probably not a dedicated platform but upgraded from last generation dedicated Multiroles to again get more use out of expensive gear.
- Fighter-Bomber: A fighter that has been converted into dropping bombs, usually dropping ordnance at nearest available target of opportunity before returning to fighter mode. These have since been phased out as dedicated ground attack aircraft emerged.
Ground attack airplanes are used for supporting ground operations by providing close-air support to friendly infantry. Most such aircraft are helicopters, as their ability to hover and stay close to the ground makes them better suited for this role. However, some fixed-wing aircraft do exist as well.
- Fixed-Wing Attack Aircraft: Originally used to harass and demoralize enemy ground forces, as technology improved, attack aircraft became more accurate and survivable to enemy fire. They started to vanish during the Cold War as helicopters and strike fighters took over their role, but a small number managed to find their niche as they could be deployed more rapidly than helicopters, while taking more damage and being able to loiter longer than strike fighters (which oftentimes are moving too fast to get more than one hit onto a target area). The A-10 Warthog is considered the standard for modern fixed-wing attack aircraft, possessing a tank-busting Gatling gun that goes BRRRRRRRRRRRRRT and a heavily protected cockpit that is often called an "armored bathtub." They are also one of the most effective counters to Attack Helicopters and carry less risk compared to Man-portable air-defense systems and anti air guns. Something that other fixed wing aircraft just suck at. Remote controlled or even autonomous drones are likely going to be next step of evolution for this archetype.
- Wild Weasel: A ground attack support craft, a Wild Weasel's job is to be a DISTRACTION CARNIFEX, get targeted by enemy radar and ground to air weapons, then either follow the targeting beam back to the source or direct an ally to do the same. Famously the motto for American Wild Weasels units is "YGBSM" or "You gotta be shitting me" based on what somebody who was told his job was to be a designated target said in response.
- Attack Helicopters:
Something that people may sexually identify asDuring the Vietnam war, some army generals figured out that if sticking a few machineguns onto a UH-1 Huey turned it into a flying troop transport, adding some armor and sticking some rockets and autocannons onto a helicopter would turn it into a flying tank. This lead to the development of the AH-1 Cobra Attack Helicopter, which the majority of modern attack helicopters take after design-wise; narrow profile, pilot behind gunner position, chin-mounted gun and weapon pods mounted on wingtips, etc. A helicopter can also avoid enemy radar more easily by hovering closer to the ground, though they can still be vulnerable to small arms fire; particularly if the tail gets shot out. A non-stationary helicopter is still hard to hit though with anything other than rapid-fire cannons or guided missiles.
- Transport Helicopter: Much like land-based Armored Personnel Carriers, transport helicopters can ferry soldiers to distant battlefields with relative speed. While they are generally not frontline combat aircraft, they are often armed enough with doorguns and sometimes rockets to clear out and secure landing zones to provide infantry the space they need to infiltrate and exfiltrate as needed. Some heavy-lifting helicopters may even be able to tow along armored vehicles for additional support.
- Gunship: Whereas "gunship" will often refer to a heavily-armed helicopter, fixed-wing gunships are quite rare, but also awe-inspiring. Basically, a gunship mounts multiple guns on its side and strafes enemy ground targets by soaking them in fire. Only a handful of such aircraft have existed, all of which from converted aircraft; the G and H variants of the WWII B-25 medium bomber had been converted to mount at least a dozen .50 cal machineguns and a 75mm cannon for anti-ship warfare, while the AC-47 mounted three miniguns on its side. The latest one is the AC-130, which mounts a 105mm cannon and various autocannons or rotary guns for total annihilation. The downside though is that such aircraft are quite vulnerable to enemy aircraft and AA weapons, making them only useful if friendly forces have already taken control of the airspace which makes them perfect for the 21st century chronic low intensity insurgency fighting.
Bombers, quite simply, drop bombs. Two types exist: strategic bombers (of which a mission will be built around destroying a specific target), and tactical bombers (where a bomber will attack targets as part of an overall mission, such as supporting ground forces). In the beginning, they had terrible accuracy, so they had to try and saturate targets with as many bombs as they could carry in the hopes that one of them would hit the right target. Or, if they were dive-bombers, approach the target at a steep angle before releasing and pulling away as quickly as possible.
In WWII, Bombers could be divided into light, medium, and heavy bombers. Light bombers were more tactically-oriented and resembled the fighter-bombers listed above. Medium and Heavy bombers were bigger and slower, but could carry more payloads. They oftentimes had defensive machinegun pods and fighter escorts as well, given that they were massively important targets.
During the Cold War, emphasis was put on making them fly higher and farther to avoid enemy defenses and deliver nuclear payloads, though this capability has since declined due to the invention of ICBMs. In warfare they generally carry conventional bombs, though they can also carry cruise missiles for taking out distant targets where an overhead flyby would be too risky. Nowadays they are either Tactical Bombers or Strategic Bombers.
The current era of asymmetrical warfare has created proposals to reintroduce the propeller powered bomber as "light-attack aircraft". Modern bombers are really, really expensive not only to build but to operate, and jihadis (or other terrorists) virtually never have anti-air ability beyond some DShKs manned by people with no anti-aircraft training, rendering most of the expensive defenses on the bombers overkill. Thus the idea comes of making a cheap aircraft dedicated to bombing such targets cheaply. The biggest obstacles in their adoptions is the massive ones of securing congressional funding and then passing military design/appropriations programs.
These specialist craft have one primary purpose: to degrade the effectiveness of the radar and guidance systems of enemy aircraft. These can be converted fighters or utility craft, usually by sticking a radar-jammer onto it. They can still carry conventional weapons (especially converted old fighters), but will oftentimes be supported by other fighters for engaging enemy craft.
While normally associated with Science Fiction, motherships did have a practical, although limited use in history. The earliest airborne motherships were airships, having internal hangars to carry biplane fighters, such as the American Akron class airships. In WWII, the Russians re-purposed the obsolete TB-3 Heavy bomber into carrying 2-5 light fighters, thereby extending their operational range and allowing them to carry heavier payloads. Nowadays, the mothership concept is only used for experimental aircraft or for carrying unmanned drones; Aircraft carriers are much more practical for launching fighters away from one's home base.
Airborne Early Warning and Control/AWACS and Command Planes
AWACS planes are used to direct allied squadrons to their proper targets and make sense of the gajillions of people screaming into the radio at any one point of the battle. Usually have dedicated high power radar that you can't fit in a fighter. Command planes are just that, serving as a mobile command center for some high ranking REMF (rear echelon motherfucker) to micromanage their troops, or at least give said REMF eyes and ears on the field and also as VIP planes such as the famous Air Force One.
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