Military aviation

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An A-10 Thunderbolt II, F-86 Sabre, P-38 Lightning and P-51 Mustang fly in formation during an air show at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia.
An A-10 Thunderbolt II, F-86 Sabre, P-38 Lightning and P-51 Mustang fly in formation during an air show at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia.

Military aviation is the use of aircraft and other flying machines for the purposes of conducting or enabling warfare, including national airlift (cargo) capacity to provide logistical supply to forces stationed in a theater or along a front. Air power includes the national means of conducting such warfare including the intersection of transport and war craft. The wide variety of military aircraft includes bombers, fighters, fighter bombers, transports, trainers, and reconnaissance aircraft. These varied types of aircraft allow for the completion of a wide variety of objectives.


Heavier-than-air aircraft were first used in the military in the Italo-Turkish War in the Libyan theater. Those aircraft were used primarily for reconnaissance. Since then, aircraft have been able to take on a wide variety of missions. The last two decades were characterized by incredible advances in electronics, stealth technology, and both offensive and defensive systems. Today, the Air Force is the first line of defense against an attack in high technological warfare. They are also usually the first to engage an enemy.

Types of military aircraft


Bombers are normally larger, heavier, and less maneuverable than fighter aircraft. They are capable of carrying large payloads of bombs. 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 WWII bomber would be a B-17 Flying Fortress.


Fighters are fast, highly maneuverable, and capable of destroying enemy aircraft and ground targets. Their main role is air-to-air combat, offensive or defensive. Escorting bombers or other non-attack aircraft is also a common task. They are capable of carrying a variety of weapons, including machine guns, cannons, rockets, guided missiles and bombs, depending on the mission. They can also be used to provide support for friendly ground troops. Some fighters, called fighter-bombers, are able to carry conventional or nuclear weapons far behind enemy lines to strike priority ground targets. 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-15 Eagle and the MiG-29. WWII fighters include the P-51 Mustang and 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.

Reconnaissance aircraft

Reconnaissance aircraft are primarily used to gather intelligence. They are equipped with photographic, infrared, radar, and television sensors. These aircraft may be specially designed or may be modified from a basic fighter or bomber type. Some are equipped with special electronic gear for detecting submarines, such as sonar, and others can give early warnings of enemy approach. Due to the growing number and reliability of satellites, most reconnaissance aircraft are quickly becoming useless. Reconnaissance aircraft are normally fastest aircraft in the military–an example being the SR-71 Blackbird and the U-2.

Transport aircraft

Transport 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 fighters, bombers, and helicopters while in flight. An example of a transport aircraft is the C-17 Globemaster III. A WWII example would be the C-47. An example of a tanker craft would be the KC-135 Stratotanker.


Helicopters may be used to transport troops, attack targets, provide support, deliver supplies, and search and rescue. The ability of helicopters to land and take off vertically gives them the option to land in areas fixed wing aircraft would not be able to access. An example of a military helicopter is the UH-60 Black Hawk.

Experimental Aircraft

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 XB-70 Valkyrie.


Many 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 mutirole plane is the F/A-18 Hornet. A WWII example would be the P-38 Lightning.

Air forces

Where they exist, air forces are usually tasked with the air defense of a country, as well as strategic bombing, ground attack and transport functions. Air Force operations may also include space-based operations such as reconnaissance or satellite operations. Militaries may have a branch dedicated to aviation (an air force) or may distribute aviation between other branches such as the army or navy. Even when a country has a dedicated air force, the other branches will generally utilize aviation.


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