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Weaponry, Air Force

Weaponry, Air Force. One of the principal tasks of an air force in war is the destruction of selected enemy targets. In the achievement of this aim, air force weapons have evolved from hand‐held guns and bombs into a vast inventory, which includes rapid‐firing cannon, guided missiles for use against air and surface targets, “smart” bombs, weapons dispensers, mines, and cruise and ballistic missiles.

Americans were the first to take weapons into the air in heavier‐than‐air flying machines. In June 1910, Glenn Curtiss, flying his “Golden Flyer” biplane, aimed tennis ball–sized dummy bombs at a target shaped like a battleship. The following year, Lt. Myron Crissy dropped small high‐explosive bombs by hand from a Wright biplane during army exercises near San Francisco. The first shots were fired from an airplane in August 1910, when Lt. Jacob Fickel aimed a rifle from the leading edge of a Curtiss biplane's wing and hit a small ground target. In June 1912, Capt. Charles Chandler successfully air‐tested a Lewis machine gun mounted on a Wright B Flyer at College Park, Maryland.

The high command remained generally unimpressed by these unofficial experiments. As a result, American development of the air weapon was neglected before 1917 and the U.S. Army Air Service entered World War I with almost no combat capability. American squadrons in France had to use British or French armament and equipment, even though one of the most effective Allied weapons was the Lewis gun, an American design manufactured in Europe. By the end of the war, an excellent lightweight machine gun, the Browning, was in production in the United States, but too late for combat.

Between the wars, most advances in airborne weapons design were led by Germany and the Soviet Union; elsewhere progress was relatively insignificant. The U.S. Army Air Forces entered World War II using weapons that were mostly updated versions of those available in 1918. The majority of combat aircraft carried machine guns of 0.3‐inch or 0.5‐inch caliber, or 20mm cannon. The 0.3‐inch gun was found to be generally inadequate, but the higher calibers proved effective against enemy aircraft and soft‐skinned surface targets. A 75mm gun was fitted to a few B‐25 medium bombers for attacks on shipping, and some bomber aircraft also carried torpedoes. (The air force still retains a commitment to support naval operations by minelaying.) During the latter part of the war, tactical aircraft began to attack surface targets with unguided rockets.

The principal American bombs used in World War II were high‐explosive, weighing from 100 to 4,000 pounds, and small incendiaries, usually of 2.2 pounds. The devastating effect of these unsophisticated weapons delivered in large numbers was exemplified by the destruction of cities like Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo. Some attempts were made to use radio‐guided bombs against pinpoint targets, but the experiments were not generally successful. Although the war did see considerable development in aerial weapons, the only revolutionary change in weapons technology came in 1945, with the B‐29 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which effectively destroyed both cities and ended the war in the Pacific. The debate over the morality of nuclear weapons has persisted ever since.

The Vietnam War highlighted both the folly of attempting close political management of the air campaign and the inefficiency of using massive weights of free‐fall (“dumb”) bombs, including huge quantities of napalm, against a relatively unsophisticated but well‐armed enemy. Such notable successes as were achieved from the air were mostly associated with the advent of the first reliable guided (“smart”) weapons. (The Than Hoa Bridge near Hanoi defied over 800 “dumb” attacks, but was destroyed by four F‐4 Phantoms on the first sortie with “smart bombs.”)

Since the Vietnam War, air force weaponry has increased greatly in variety and power. None of the weapons are entirely new in concept, but technological advances have dramatically improved their accuracy and effectiveness. Large stocks of free‐fall nuclear, chemical, and high‐explosive bombs are retained. The high‐explosive types, including cluster bomb units, can still be used to considerable effect—during the Persian Gulf War they were deployed by B‐52s against Iraqi troop concentrations—but the proportion of guided weapons in the inventory is increasing as guidance systems become smaller and cheaper. As the Gulf War demonstrated, munitions guided by radar, infrared, or electrooptical (TV and laser) systems greatly enhance the effectiveness of attacking aircraft, one bomb often accomplishing what would have taken hundreds in World War II. The precision of the initial air assault on Iraq in 1991, although not as accurate as was first thought, was still such that the national command and control system was devastated within hours. Guided high‐explosive bombs can be extremely effective both tactically, in providing support to surface forces, and strategically, against the fabric of an enemy state.

Short‐range air‐to‐surface missiles, some introduced during the Vietnam War, carry high‐explosive warheads and are used by tactical aircraft against pinpoint targets. Similar weapons are available for use against shipping. The next generation of these missiles, with improved “seeker” heads and employing “stealth” technology, should be operational by the end of the century.

Although they represent the ultimate in destructive capacity, in the aftermath of the Cold War the air force's nuclear weapons occupy a less commanding position than previously in American airpower doctrine. Nevertheless, the air force retains the capability to deliver nuclear warheads of varying yields both as free‐fall bombs and in guided vehicles. B‐1, B‐2, and venerable B‐52 bombers carry cruise‐guided missiles, which can be launched at ranges of less than 100 to over 1,000 miles from their targets. The air force is also responsible for the intercontinental ballistic missiles deployed in silos in the western United States. During the Cold War, these various nuclear weapons were central to the policy of deterrence employed in containing the Soviet Union. They still have an important if less well defined role in deterring international aggression at the highest level.

The primary air force weapons in air‐to‐air combat are guided missiles, typically using infrared or radar homing and achieving in‐flight speeds of up to Mach 4. Some are designed for relatively short ranges, others can be fired at targets more than thirty miles away. The guided missile is now sufficiently reliable to be dominant in air‐to‐air combat, but guns are still mounted in aircraft like the F‐15 and F‐16, and will be fitted to the next‐generation air superiority fighter, the F‐22. They are retained because they are effective at very close range, relatively cheap, and, once fired, “dumb” bullets cannot be fooled by enemy countermeasures. Modern fighter aircraft guns are usually multibarrel weapons of 20–30mm caliber, in which several barrels rotate in Gatling gun style. Rates of fire can reach over 6,000 rounds per minute, with muzzle velocities of 3,400 feet per second. The combination of these weapons is intended to ensure that air superiority can be achieved by U.S. fighter aircraft wherever required in future conflicts involving American forces.
[See also Air Force, U.S.; Air Warfare; Bombs; Fighter Aircraft; Heat‐Seeking Technology; Weaponry, Army; Weaponry, Marine Corps; Weaponry, Naval; Weaponry, Evolution of; World War I, U.S. Air Operations in; World War II, U.S. Air Operations in: The Air War in Europe; World War II, U.S. Air Operations in: The Air War Against Japan.]


John W. R. Taylor , A History of Aerial Warfare, 1974.
Bill Gunston , The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Aircraft Armament, 1988.
Ron Dick , American Eagles, 1997.

Ron Dick

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