Military aircraft represent the pinnacle of high technology and are an indispensable part of modern fighting forces. Air superiority or the ability to control the airspace over a battlefield is a fundamental part of military strategy. Today’s air forces deploy a wide range of specialized air craft to carry out specific missions including surveillance, bomber and fighter planes. Some planes have been in the arsenal for many decades including the venerable B-52 that can carpet bomb a target or send a single GPS guided bomb through a window. The latest unmanned aircraft remain classified even as they are deployed around the world to engage hard to reach enemy targets.
10. Killer Drone
The MQ-1 Predator is probably the weapon system most associated with the Global War on Terror. Officially the are referred to as remotely piloted aircraft or unmanned aerial vehicles, but long ago “drone” became the common term used by most military personnel and civilians alike. Originally these drones were designed for surveillance and forward observations missions, but their potential as a weapon system soon became clear. The Predator and other armed drones have been used with impressive results over many battlefields including Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. With pilots sitting in a room hundreds of miles from the battlefield, Predators can launch missiles at enemy targets with no risk to the airmen. These relatively cheap aircraft have become the bane of our enemies as they never know when one of these killers will appear in the skies overhead. The stand off push button nature of these weapons have made them controversial in some circles. This seems odd in a world of increasing automation and artificial intelligence. Since the Predator was first deployed almost two decades ago manny advances have been made in drone technology including more powerful weapons and sensors and even stealth technology that make them very difficult for an enemy to defend against.
9. Fortress In The Sky
Most of the top military planes are sleak jets that streak through the sky as speeds approaching the sound barrier. The B-52 Stratofortress is not one of these planes. This venerable workhorse of the United States Air Force had its maiden flight back in April 1954. This massive jet plane has a wing span of 185 feet and is 159 feet long. As a heavy bomber it is capable of carrying a payload of up to 70,00 pounds. The Stratofortress can carry a wide range of deadly munitions including “dumb” gravity bombs, GPS and laser guided “smart” bombs and cruise missiles. Since their debut during the Cold War B-52s have also regularly trained to carry and deliver nuclear bombs over enemy targets. Because this plane is relatively slow the crew of 5 airmen rely on their plane’s ability to fly at over 50,ooo feet to stay out of harm’s way. To make sure the bomber get through, however, fighter escorts would likely accompany the bombers on high-risk missions over targets where they would be in danger of getting shot down. Although not as glamorous as leak jet fighters this bomber has more than made up for it with decades of reliable service that has saved many American lives on battlefields around the world. The B-52 has been flying since the first decade of the Cold War and with regular modifications and upgrades it will likely be flying for decades to come.
8. It’s Raining Bullets
The A-10 Thunderbolt is a unique aircraft among military jets because instead of a plane with weapons added to it the A-10 was conceived essentially as a giant gun with war plane built around it. This armored ground attack plane is also known as the Warthog because it is not known for leak lines and graceful maneuvers, but for ugly, brute force. Although it often carries a mix of missiles and bombs, this plane’s brute force is mainly provided by the plane’s 30×173 mm GAU-8/A Avenger auto-cannon. This is the Air Force’s way of saying it’s a really scary gun that can do a lot of damage. This impressive cannon fires large depleted uranium armor-piercing shells that can devastate most armored vehicles. These impressive rounds were designed to penetrate the armor of Soviet tanks in the event the Cold War turned hot in Europe. The A-10’s effectiveness was demonstrated during the 1991 fight against Saddam Hussein’s armored forces during Operation Desert Sword. Much faster and more advanced jets continue to come into service, but the A-10 remains a reliable and comforting weapons that infantry units love to see flying over the battlefield. They have nearly been retired from service several times, but their effectiveness will likely keep them flying well in the next decade.
7. Might As Well Jump
Combat aircraft have been flying since World War One and one of their weaknesses are that most of them need a fairly long runway to be effective. Finally a British company developed a revolutionary air plane in 1969 capable of vertical takeoffs and landings (V/STOL.) These so-called jump jets opened up the possibility of operating from smaller ships at sea and primitive landing zones much as a helicopter is able to do. But this capability doesn’t come cheap in terms of cost and performance and they simply can’t match up with more conventional planes like the F-22 Raptor. The American Marine Corps took an interest in them and flies a version called the AV-8B Harrier. The USMC flies them from the decks of amphibious assault ships and uses them in a ground attack role much like the Air Force uses the A-10 Thunderbolt. Because of their unique ability to take off and land vertically they had to trade off other capabilities. These planes usually carry a smaller payload and are not as fast as conventional air craft. Nevertheless these war planes have performed well in combat have earned the right to fly with the other top military planes. In the long term they are slated to be replaced by the (V/STOL) variant of the American F-35 Lightning.
6. A Dragon Takes Flight
The Chengdu J-20 Stealth fighter made its public debut at an air show in 2016 and it officially deployed with Chinse Air Force units in February of 2018. Many aviation analysts are wondering how China’s 5th generation stealth fighter will stack up against America’s top military planes like the F-35 and the F-22. Some analysts have concluded, based on what is publicly available about the J-20, that it doesn’t quite measure up – at least not yet. The J-20’s engines are believed to be inadequate for the size and weight of the fighter and its stealth capabilities are not at the level of the F-22. One possible solution for these issues involves the Russians. China has purchased some of Russia’s advanced fighters and some observers believe China intends to harvest the technology from these planes in order to improve their own technology. Like the F-35 Lightning, the Chinese Air Force wants the J-20 to fulfill multiple roles as a fighter/interceptor and as a ground attack plane. Some analysts have contended that although the J-20 is impressive on paper they doubt that its actual performance will be able to live up to the hype – at least in the short term. Experts will continue to study the new plane and continue to assess its capabilities as it evolves. It’s true value, however will only be known if or when it is used in combat.
5. Bat Wing
The F-117 Nighthawk is a cool looking plane that could be mistaken for Batman’s Batwing, but developers were concerned that the Air Force’s best pilots wouldn’t want to fly the strange looking plane. Although the F-117 is in fact designed as and used as a bomber, it was designated a “Fighter” by its creators. This ploy was used to help coax skeptical pilots who wanted to fly fighters into giving the ungainly machine a try. The plane is not built for speed or maneuverability it is built to trick radar operators into thinking what they’re seeing on their screens isn’t a plane. The F-117 took advantage of all the state of the art technology of its day including metallurgy, electronics and even the chemical composition of paint to thwart enemy radar. However, it is the plane’s strange shape with its many angles that reduces its radar signature. This diamond shape means that only small amounts of radar energy are reflected back to the radar operative at any given moment so it would look like a flock of birds on the screen, but not a bomber. The Nighthawk debuted during the 1991 Gulf War, flying at night over Baghdad to hit sensitive regime targets despite heavy anti-aircraft defenses designed by the Soviet Union. While this plane had a remarkable record it was eventually replaced by the bigger and even stealthier B-2 bomber that still flies missions today.
4. Lightning Strikes
The F-35 Lightning has been criticized from the get go as too expensive and too complex to be viable replacement for some of the U.S. military’s aging squadrons. From the beginning this plan was designed to replace several different planes. When this happens is still a question, but versions of the F-35 have been deployed since 2006. Like the F-22 the F-35 maintains its stealth capabilities when fully armed and fueled because both are stored internally. There are three main variations of the jet. The standard version is flown by the Air Force and can carry a heavy load of missiles and bombs. The Navy variation of this plane has been fitted with a tail hook so they can take off and land on the deck of an aircraft carrier. The Marine Corps version is capable of vertical take offs and landings. The Marine Corps version usually is deployed aboard amphibious assault ships and, much like the aging Harrier, will be able to operate from primitive landing strips. The F-35 is a compromise between stealth, power and weapons which makes it a versatile aircraft. However, it has also made it controversial because some analysts believe this type of design resulted in a less effective jet than otherwise could have been built. These analysts point to the F-22 as an example of what can be achieved. This criticism could prove to be unfair and only time and its performance in combat will reveal its true worth.
3. Death From Above
Military technology is a long way from developing an actual cloaking device that can make aircraft disappear like we are used to in science fiction movies. However, until we really can make things invisible the B-2 Spirit Bomber is a pretty good substitute. Unlike the F-117 with its harsh angels and straight edges the B-2 uses smooth surfaces and top secret materials to hide from the searching signals of enemy radar systems. Work on the B-2 Spirit got underway during the Carter administration in the late 1970’s, but the stealth bomber didn’t make its first flight until Reagan’s second term in 1989. it remains the only truly stealth bomber in the world and the U.S. Air Force has plans on the drawing board to replace the B-2 with an even more advanced plane. The B-2 can carry a range of different payloads including up to 80 500 lb. GPS guided bombs or 16 nuclear bombs. Only 20 of this amazing piece of technology were built due to the end of the Cold War and their high cost which is reportedly a little over a billion dollars per plane. With aerial refueling the B-2 has nearly unlimited range and routinely flies to targets several thousand miles from its base. The Spirit has had a nearly perfect operational record since it was first deployed during the Kosovo War in 1999. It has since seen combat deployments over dangerous places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
2. This Blackbird Sings
If there’s a trophy for coolest plane ever than the SR-71 probably should get it. This formidable looking jet was retired from military service years ago, but it still looks ahead of its time hurtling through the atmosphere more like a star fighter from a movie than a plane. The SR-71 Blackbird made its first flight in 1964 and was a highly effective spy plane during the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. It was sent on dangerous missions over sensitive targets like Soviet missile bases. The plane did not carry any weapons and relied on its truly impressive speed of Mach 3 that allowed it to out run any other plane in the air. The sleek design was an early attempt at stealth to evade enemy radar. The plane’s dark blue paint (not black despite its name) also helped to deflect radar signals. This combination of speed and stealth made it very difficult for surface to air missiles to track and acquire the Blackbird. By the time the enemy radars locked on to it the SR-71 was streaking out of range of the missiles. These capabilities proved to be very effective and no Blackbird was shot down during their more than 20 years of service. Although aircraft technology has evolved greatly since the Blackbird’s day this formidable weapon still ranks as one of the top military planes ever.
1. Birds of Prey
The F-22 Raptor is the U.S. Air Force’s premier 5th generation tactical air superiority fighter. The Air Force considers this fighter to be superior to all enemy fighters currently deployed or in development. The plane’s advanced stealth capabilities, avionics and aerodynamic performance make it the most deadly fighter ever flown. However, its high cost and the fact that it has no peers to challenge it convinced congress to limit the plane’s production to only 187 aircraft. With Russia and China aggressively rearming, this decision could soon be seen as very short sighted. Some critics of the F-22 argue that the F-35 is a good alternative to the more pricey F-22. While the F-35 is indeed a fine aircraft, it seems odd to deny the military the very best weapons that are available to them. Many politicians seem to have calculated that a major war will not break out any time soon and the awesome capabilities of the F-22 will not be needed. We hope this is true, but this seems a little short-sighted for a national security policy. In the mean time this plane made its first combat deployment over Syria in 2014. Although the Raptor flew a number of bombing missions and at least one close air support mission, its primary role was reconnaissance. For now at least, the F-22 is the top military plane in the world.