- Combat aircraft are designed to destroy enemy equipment using their own aircraft ordnance. Combat aircraft are normally developed and procured only by military forces.
- Non-combat aircraft are not designed for combat as their primary function, but may carry weapons for self-defense. These mainly operate in support roles, and may be developed by either military forces or civilian organizations.
Combat aircraft, or "Warplanes", are divided broadly into multi-role, fighters, bombers, and attackers, with several variations between them, including fighter-bombers, such as the MiG-23 ground-attack aircraft and the Soviet Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik. Also included among combat aircraft are long-range maritime patrol aircraft, such as the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod and the S-3 Viking that are often equipped to attack with anti-ship missiles and anti-submarine weapons.
The main role of fighters is destroying enemy aircraft in air-to-air combat, offensive or defensive. Many are fast and highly maneuverable. Escorting bombers or other aircraft is also a common task. They are capable of carrying a variety of weapons, including machine guns, cannons, rockets and guided missiles. Many modern fighters can attack enemy fighters from a great distance, before the enemy even sees them. Examples of air superiority fighters include the F-22 Raptor. World War II fighters include the British Spitfire; the American P-51 Mustang; and German Bf 109. An example of an interceptor (a fighter designed to take-off and quickly intercept and shoot down enemy planes) would be the MiG-25. An example of a heavy fighter is the Messerschmitt Bf 110. The term "fighter" is also sometimes applied to aircraft that have virtually no air-air capability – for example the A-10 ground-attack aircraft is operated by USAF "Fighter" squadrons.
Bombers are normally larger, heavier, and less maneuverable than fighter aircraft. They are capable of carrying large payloads of bombs, torpedoes or cruise missiles. Bombers are used almost exclusively for ground attacks and not fast or agile enough to take on enemy fighters head-to-head. A few have a single engine and require one pilot to operate and others have two or more engines and require crews of two or more. A limited number of bombers, such as the B-2 Spirit, have stealth capabilities that keep them from being detected by enemy radar. An example of a conventional modern bomber would be the B-52 Stratofortress. An example of a World War II bomber would be a B-17 Flying Fortress. Bombers include light bombers, medium bombers, heavy bombers, dive bombers, and torpedo bombers. The U.S. Navy and Marines have traditionally referred to their light and medium bombers as "attack aircraft".
Attack aircraft can be used to provide support for friendly ground troops. Some are able to carry conventional or nuclear weapons far behind enemy lines to strike priority ground targets. Attack helicopters attack enemy armor and provide close air support for ground troops. An example historical ground-attack aircraft is the Soviet Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik. Several types of transport airplanes have been armed with sideways firing weapons as gunships for ground attack. These include the AC-47 and AC-130 aircraft.
In modern air forces the distinction between bombers, fighter-bombers, and attack aircraft has become blurred. Many attack aircraft, even ones that look like fighters, are optimized to drop bombs, with very little ability to engage in aerial combat. Indeed, the design qualities that make an effective low-level attack aircraft make for a distinctly inferior air superiority fighter, and vice versa. Perhaps the most meaningful distinction is that a bomber is generally a long-range aircraft capable of striking targets deep within enemy territory, whereas fighter bombers and attack aircraft are limited to 'theater' missions in and around the immediate area of battlefield combat. Even that distinction is muddied by the availability of aerial refueling, which greatly increases the potential radius of combat operations.
Electronic warfare aircraft
An electronic warfare aircraft is a military aircraft equipped for electronic warfare (EW) - i.e. degrading the effectiveness of enemy radar and radio systems.
Maritime patrol aircraft
A maritime patrol aircraft fixed-wing military aircraft designed to operate for long durations over water in maritime patrol roles—in particular anti-submarine, anti-ship and search and rescue.
Multirole combat aircraft
Many combat aircraft today have a multirole ability. Normally only applying to fixed-wing aircraft, this term signifies that the plane in question can be a fighter or a bomber, depending on what the mission calls for. An example of a multirole design is the F/A-18 Hornet. A World War II example would be the P-38 Lightning.
Some fighter aircraft, such as the F-16 Fighting Falcon, are mostly used as 'bomb trucks', despite being designed for aerial combat.
Many civil aircraft, both fixed wing and rotary wing, have been produced in separate models for military use, such as the civilian Douglas DC-3 airliner, which became the military C-47 Skytrain, and British "Dakota" transport planes, and decades later, the USAF's AC-47 aerial gunships. Even the fabric-covered two-seat Piper J3 Cub had a military version. Gliders and balloons have also been used as military aircraft; for example, balloons were used for observation during the American Civil War and during World War I, and military gliders were used during World War II to deliver ground troops in airborne assaults.
Military transport aircraft
Military transport (logistics) aircraft are primarily used to transport troops and war supplies. Cargo can be attached to pallets, which are easily loaded, secured for flight, and quickly unloaded for delivery. Cargo also may be discharged from flying aircraft on parachutes, eliminating the need for landing. Also included in this category are aerial tankers; these planes can refuel other aircraft while in flight. An example of a transport aircraft is the C-17 Globemaster III. A World War II example would be the C-47. An example of a tanker craft would be the KC-135 Stratotanker. Helicopters and gliders can transport troops and supplies to areas where other aircraft would be unable to land.
Calling a military aircraft a "cargo plane" is incorrect, because military transport planes also carry paratroopers and other soldiers.
Airborne early warning and control
An airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) system is an airborne radar system designed to detect aircraft, ships and ground vehicles at long ranges and control and command the battle space in an air engagement by directing fighter and attack aircraft strikes. AEW&C units are also used to carry out surveillance, including over ground targets and frequently perform C2BM (command and control, battle management) functions similar to an Airport Traffic Controller given military command over other forces. Used at a high altitude, the radars on the aircraft allow the operators to distinguish between friendly and hostile aircraft hundreds of miles away.
AEW&C aircraft are used for both defensive and offensive air operations, and are to the NATO and USA forces trained or integrated Air Forces what the Command Information Center is to a Navy Warship, plus a highly mobile and powerful radar platform. The system is used offensively to direct fighters to their target locations, and defensively in order to counterattacks by enemy forces, both air and ground. So useful is the advantage of command and control from a high altitude, the United States Navy operates AEW&C aircraft off its Supercarriers to augment and protect its carrier Command Information Centers (CICs).
AEW&C is also known by the older terms "airborne early warning" (AEW) and "airborne warning and control system" (AWACS, /ˈeɪwæks/ ay-waks) although AWACS is the name of a specific system currently used by NATO and the USAF and is often used in error to describe similar systems.
Reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft
Reconnaissance aircraft are primarily used to gather intelligence. They are equipped with cameras and other sensors. These aircraft may be specially designed or may be modified from a basic fighter or bomber type. This role is increasingly being filled by satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Surveillance and observation aircraft use radar and other sensors for battlefield surveillance, airspace surveillance, maritime patrol and artillery spotting. They include modified civil aircraft designs, moored balloons and UAVs.
Experimental aircraft are designed in order to test advanced aerodynamic, structural, avionic, or propulsion concepts. These are usually well instrumented, with performance data telemetered on radio-frequency data links to ground stations located at the test ranges where they are flown. An example of an experimental aircraft is the Bristol 188.
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- Gunston 1986, p. 274
- Guilmartin, John F., Jr. "Military Aircraft." Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, n.d. Web. 11 May 2015 (March 2015)
- Dwyer, Larry (17 September 1997). "Lockheed P38 Lightning". The Aviation History Online Museum
- Gunston, Bill (1986). Jane's Aerospace Dictionary. London, England: Jane's Publishing Company Limited. ISBN 0-7106-0365-7.