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"It's never a good idea to glorify war, but holy shit do fighter planes make it hard not to. It's not just the badassery of the machines themselves, but the fact that being a fighter pilot takes a special kind of balls that borders on crazy."

A Brief History Of Military Aviation

Almost as soon as the aircraft was invented, men realised it was a nifty way of observing the enemy. Much later, they realised it might also make a nifty way of killing people without getting too much blood or mud on one's uniform. The history of military aviation is a story of massive investment, expense, and rapid design change closely coupled with human excellence and violence (and bravery) and as a result has been an abundant source of material for almost every kind of narrative media.

Aviation has also had a growing effect warfare since the beginning of the 20th century. At every level of military action (strategic, operational, tactical) the use of friendly and enemy aircraft to observe, attack, and supply must be accounted for. As with ground and naval forces, relatively small forces of aircraft have occasionally been used in extraordinary actions to disproportionate effect.

Today the tiny numbers of aircraft and aircraft munitions available to the world's peacetime militaries, their expense, and the time required for their production mean that each individual aircraft has a relatively high military value and effect. Taken together with the small size and similar expense and difficult of producing ground and naval forces, this means that the outcome of modern-day non-Total War is less certain than ever before.

The fictional airman is often an Officer and a Gentleman, and/or a Military Maverick. Neither trope is completely without real life basis.


Naval Aviation

The first military branch to incorporate aircraft in their doctrine was the Navy: from 1911 to 1913 all major navies had fledgling air services using small floatplanes, medium-sized flying boats, and large airships. Their primary role was reconnaissance. While the sighting range from a ship was around 20 kilometers (11 nautical miles), an aircraft at 3000 ft had a sighting range of nearly 100 km (54 n.m.). In addition, aircraft were good for spotting minefields and submarines.

They soon picked up another role, the air strike. Even the smaller aircraft could carry flechettes, light bombs, or rockets, which made them essentially self-spotting long range artillery. The first recorded bomb dropped from an aeroplane was during the Italo-Turkish war of 1911-1912, but naval aviation developed this role a lot during World War One. Special carrier ships could deliver air strikes against land and sea targets, and torpedo-carrying aircraft and dive bombers were soon able to threaten even capital ships. Come World War II, naval aviation quickly showed that air superiority was essential to naval operations, offensively and defensively.


Turning the airstrike up to eleven, very soon several countries were building very large aircraft carrying bomb loads of several hundred kilogrammes to strategically bomb targets in the enemy's homeland. Until World War II, many military theorists believed that fleets of bomber aircraft were going to be the decisive weapon in future wars (thanks to the development of interceptor aircraft and radar warning systems, these expectations weren't quite fulfilled). The most common type of bomber during WWII was the twin-engined medium bomber. Only the British and Americans used heavy bombers to a great extent; Germany had the Heinkel He-177 and the Soviet Union had the Petlyakov Pe-8, but neither saw widespread service. Japan never had any heavy bombers, relying instead on large numbers of light and medium bombers.

Army Aviation

There was very little place for aircraft at the tactical level of warfare, as the role of 'spotting' for artillery was more effectively performed by observation balloons. In the first half of the war balloons and observation posts were generally adequate for the observing the entire tactical defenses, which were at most only 6km deep in 1914-1916 note . However, with the shift to 'elastic defense' doctrine in mid-1916 tactical defenses became up to 20km deep. Air reconnaissance (by balloon and fixed-wing aircraft) therefore became essential at the tactical level.

At the operational level of warfare aircraft were invaluable from the outset. During the manoeuvre warfare of August-September 1914 there was no quicker way to directly deliver messages from one higher-level headquarters to another than by air. Telegraph lines simply couldn't be laid out to armies in the field, telephone lines were even more expensive and had poor range to boot, and even Germany's cutting-edge horse-drawn wireless 'radio transmitters'(at least four horses and two carts) had absolutely woeful range. Air couriers were even more essential in the east, where there were half as many telegraph lines and there was up to thrice as much distance to cover. Aircraft were also totally indispensible for identifying enemy reserves in the operational depths (20-200km behind the front lines) in the east, though in France and Italy this wasn't useful. Enemy air observation capabilities, the density of rail infrastructure, and difficulty in overcoming the tactical defenses meant there was no way to use this information to concentrate one's forces at 'unexpected points' - though it should be noted that it was the enemy's own air observation capabilities which made such responses possible (or in the war's last months, impossible after the virtual destruction of the German Army's Air Arm).

Aircraft were useful for artillery spotting, but until radio equipment light enough to be carried by aircraft had been developed (around 1915), communications between ground and air were crude and tedious. As military aircraft became more efficient through use in other branches, they eventually became crucial to the army too. Ground attack planes could be used for supply interdiction, and could attack enemy infantry and supply columns, camps, machine-gun nests, and artillery batteries in coordination with army units — these activities were later developed into Close Air Support tactics. Most notably, although infantry units could be easily spotted when camped or moving out in the open it took a trained eye to determine the strengths and positions of enemy tactical defenses and forces when they used concealment and cover. In the final months of the Great War, aicraft were highly prized for the protection which they afforded tanks: at best artillery bombardments would only eliminate up to half of the enemy's anti-tank artillery guns. By strafing all known and suspected anti-tank positions as the tanks advanced, aircraft could protect the tanks - which in turn would protect the infantry from machine guns.

In the inter-war era, transport aircraft gained sufficient capacity to allow deployment and supply of troops, and airborne infantry units were set up in the Soviet Union as a result of the Soviet-German military academic sharing and exchange programme. Germany, Italy, Japan, France, and Poland later developed their own airborne infantry units. During World War II the assault on Crete by German paratroops was so impressive to the British (and later the US) that they created airborne infantry divisions of their own. Ironically, the heavy losses during the same operation caused Hitler to forbid further airborne operations by Germany and insist that they fight as groundbound light infantry. The inability of airborne infantry to accomplish very much in the face of even halfway decent opposition was confirmed again in the Soviet winter counter-offensive of 1941-2 and Dnepr Crossing offensive of October 1943.

Air Combat

Aircraft of course also attacked each other. At first air-to-air combat was sporadic, erratic and inefficient. The introduction of the machine-gun in aircraft ushered in the era of dogfights and Ace Pilots. After quite a bit of experimentation by various aircraft designers, a French pilot called Roland Garros and a Dutch engineer called Anton Fokker independently came up with ways of mounting a machine-gun so that it could fire through the the arc of a propeller without striking the blades, making the job of aiming a gun while flying a plane much easier (and also making it easier for the pilot to clear frequent gun jams). Increasing airspeed and armor of later aircraft designs meant that More Dakka was always needed: by the late 1930s eight rifle-caliber machine-guns were required for interceptor aircraft, and soon autocannon were starting to replace some, then all of the machine-guns.

In the inter-war period air-to-air doctrine began to diverge with only a few countries (notably Italy and Japan) developing agile lightweight dogfighters (like the A6M Zero and G.50 Freccia) in the WWI tradition, while most countries bet on formations of powerful and fast fighters with ground-attack capability (single-engined medium types like the German Bf109, Soviet Yak-1, and US P-40, and twin-engined heavy types like the German Bf110, British Whirlwind, Soviet Pe-2, and US P-38). Britain didn't really put much faith in the fighter aircraft at all and as a result didn't develop modern medium fighters such as the Hurricane and Spitfire until 1937 (some medium bombers like the Mosquito were also reinvented as heavy fighters).


Planes got faster, stronger, better-armed and more specialised but generally remained biplanes made of canvas and wood until the mid-late 1930s, when a new generation of aircraft started to emerge, spearheaded by Germany's emerging Luftwaffe. Multi-engined monoplane bombers could outpace the best British and French fighters, and the Messerschmitt Bf109 fighter blew everything else away. The British responded just in time with their Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire, but the French were still in the process of upgrading their air force and hadn't had the time to deploy their more modern fighters when their ground forces were encircled and eliminated, forcing their surrender. Upon the invasion of the Soviet Union airpower failed to sink the Soviet Black Sea or Baltic fleets at anchor due to lack of tactical surprise and weight of AA fire from the port facilities at Sevastopol and Leningrad and from the ships themselves. Moreover airpower was unable to break the stalemate at Smolensk (July-August) or Kiev (August-September) due to an acute shortage of fuel and munitions caused by the totally insufficient rail network of the occupied territories (adequate only for a ground force half the size of that actually deployed, not including air force requirements).

This indicates what the armies of the world were just starting to realize - Air Power was now mildly important for more than just reconnaisance purpose, though it was very far from being a war-winning weapon in its own right. This lesson was shown again and again during the course of World War II as countless Soviet and German attacks were harassed or blunted by air support, only to ultimately succeed or fail largely as a result of the actions of ground forces.

Sea warfare was a different story, of course. 'Capital ships' including battleships were sunk at Taranto and Pearl Harbor and the most important naval battles were between carrier aircraft. Without aircraft carriers Japan's merchant navy would still have been completely wiped out by submarine warfare, stalling Japan's war industries due to lack of resources. But it would have been much more costly to 'island hop' into position to execute the firebombing campaign against Japanese urban centres, especially if the US had been forced to use Republican China as its main base for doing so (this would have required re-taking Burma to reopen the land supply route). Further island hopping would also have been necessary to execute Operation Downfall with air cover from land-based aircraft, which would probably have to make use of Okinawa due the difficulty of taking southern Korea from and holding it against Japan's Kwantung Army.

Towards the end of the war, jet engines were developed, with the German and British air forces being the first to put jet aircraft into action - respectively, the Me-262 and the Gloster Meteor (the former was primarily a fighter, while the latter was mostly used for chasing down V-1 flying bombs, being the only plane fast enough to do so). During the Korean War, jets fought each other for the first time, but it wasn't until shortly afterwards that the next major development in air combat took place: The Guided Missile.


Guided missiles now meant that aircraft could kill each other from miles away without ever seeing each other. It also meant the decline of the traditional bomber, as a single laser-guided bomb could now destroy a bridge, factory, railway yard, etc that had previously required a whole lot of saturation bombing.

At this same time, the first vertical take-off aircraft were developed. Most fell by the wayside, with only the very good Harrier and the very poor Yak-38 "Forger" making it to operational service.

The Vietnam War was one of the first major wars to use guided missiles, but guns often ended up being used, as the early missiles were unreliable and US rules of engagement required visual identification before firing. The US had actually taken guns off its fighters, then realised their mistake and stuck them back on. It was also the first war that proved the deadliness of the surface-to-air missile: Vietnamese SA-2 batteries made life hell for bomber crews. The US countered by developing air-to-surface tactics in Wild Weasel missions.

After that war, both sides focused on technology rather than speed. The United States developed stealth aircraft, becoming border-line unbeatable (for the time being) in an air war as a result.

Conventional fighter v. fighter combat has been rare in recent years, although the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has resulted in a significant amount of it.

Types of Military Aircraft


The most glamorous and high-profile aircraft in any given air force. As a general rule they're fast, agile and armed to shoot down enemy aircraft. Known originally as "scout" or "pursuit" aircraft. Armed generally with one or two machine-guns during World War One, progressing to six or eight during World War II (sometimes with the addition of explosive-shell-firing cannon). Missile armament is standard these days, though a cannon of some sort is usually included for close-in fighting and for when you run out of missiles.

The top speed of fighter aircraft hit just over Mach 2 in the mid-1960s, then levelled out. Studies in Vietnam found that the high speed was useless in close-in combat (which generally stayed under 600 knots). Exceeding Mach 1 also makes you a big target for infra-red missiles.

There are several sub-types depending on their precise tactical role:

  • Interceptors - As the name might suggest, these are fighters optimized for intercepting incoming attacks by enemy aircraft and preventing them from reaching or effectively damaging their targets. Frequently, speed and climbing ability were emphasized on interceptors at the expense of maneuverability, since it was assumed their targets would mostly be lumbering bombers; operational range was sometimes sacrificed since it was assumed they'd be taking off from bases near the places they would be defending and thus the enemy would come to them. Now a mostly obsolete type, as there are few heavy bombers left to target and any aircraft with the right radar and missiles can perform the role.
  • Night Fighters - These had a bit of a heyday in the late interwar period until the 1950s or so. The need for a specialized fighter for operations at night only really makes sense when heavy, specialized equipment was necessary to work in the dark. Early radars were large, heavy and imprecise; navigating at night required special equipment and skills; and accurately aiming a gun in the dark was difficult at best even if you could find the target, so they were often multi-engine aircraft with turrets, radars, and/or upward-firing machine guns. Once radars shrank and began being mounted on nearly every fighter, with radar-controlled gunsights or missiles, these became obsolete as any fighter could fight in the dark.
  • Escort Fighters - These are a counter to interceptors; they're designed to go with ground attack aircraft or bombers as an escort and defend them from enemy fighters. While maneuverability and firepower were still important, the key aspects these fighters emphasized was range and the ability to fight at high altitude alongside their charges. Now an obsolete type as disposable "drop" fuel tanks and mid-air refueling tanker aircraft can give almost any aircraft the same range as a traditional bomber.
  • Strike Fighters - Also called "multi-role" or "fighter/attack", these are aircraft designed both for air-to-air and air-to-ground combat. Often compromises needed to be made in design to enable both mission sets, but with modern precision-guided weapons this matters much less than it once did: Maneuverability no longer needs to be compromised to increase payload since precision guidance allows for fewer weapons to kill the same number of targets; armor need not be included in the design because standoff weapons keep the aircraft away from ground fire; and modern modular systems allow one aircraft to carry a wide variety of munitions on standardized hardpoints loaded out however the mission requires. Thus, this is one of the most common types today as it is more efficient to only have one type of aircraft that can do many missions than multiple specialized fleets.
  • Air Superiority Fighters - These replaced nearly all other types of fighters by basically combining their roles. An air superiority fighter is designed to destroy enemy aircraft exclusively with no provision for ground attack or anything else - "Not a pound for air-to-ground". Most have high speed, high maneuverability, a heavy missile load, a powerful radar, long range, and a gun for backup, enabling them to effectively combat enemy aircraft under any circumstances. If a modern fighter is not a strike fighter, it's probably one of these.
  • Naval and Navalized Fighters - Both are aircraft designed to fight over the sea, launching and recovering from ships; the former is designed for that role from the outset and the latter has been converted from a ground-based aircraft. They may also simultaneously fit into any of the above categories, as long as they can also operate from ships. The key difference is the equipment for launch and recovery aboard ship must be included, whether this is catapult tow bars, arresting tailhooks, or floats for water landing. Often this extra weight and sometimes drag reduces a naval aircraft's performance compared to its land-based rivals, but it's considered a reasonable tradeoff for the ability to essentially park an airbase in any part of the ocean. As there's limited shipboard space even on the largest of aircraft carriers, naval fighters (with some exceptions) tend to be generalists to prevent having to crowd too many different types of aircraft on each ship and simplify logistics many miles from shore. And occasionally, a naval fighter's design is so successful that it becomes a common land-based aircraft as well.

Six separate generations of jet fighter aircraft can identified:

  • First generation- the early sub-sonic fighters, featured in the closing stages of WW2 and in Korea, such as the F-86 Sabre, the MiG-15, the Me-262, and the Gloster Meteor.
  • Second generation- early supersonic, with primitive guided weaponry. The US "Century Series" (F-100 to F-106), the MiG-19, and the English Electric Lightning are examples.
  • Third generation- Improved weaponry and speed. Includes the F-4 Phantom II, the Dassault Mirage III and F1, and the MiG-21.
  • Fourth generation- Increasingly multi-role and improving the electronic equipment, as well as "air combat maneuvering", brought on by the lessons of Vietnam. The MiG-29 "Fulcrum" and Su-27 "Flanker", US "Teen Series" (F-14 Tomcat, F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon (or Viper, as the pilots prefer to call it), & F/A-18 Hornet), the Panavia Tornado and the Dassault Mirage 2000 are of this vintage.
  • Generation 4.5- Further improvements to electronics and weaponry, but not stealth. Most of the recent fighters, such as the later "Flanker" derivatives, the MiG-35, the F/A-18E Super Hornet, the Saab 39 Gripen, the Dassault Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon. American and Russian air forces generally retrofitted these features to fourth generation aircraft rather than designing new ones. The F/A-18E Super Hornet and the MiG-35 are exceptions to this rule; despite their similar appearance to the earlier Hornet and MiG-29, they are in many ways new designs.
  • Fifth generation- stealth fighters. The F-22 Raptor (US) and the F-35 Lightning II are service at the moment, while the Russian Sukhoi Su-57 (Perspektivnyi Aviatsionnyi Kompleks Frontovoi Aviatsyi, or Advanced Tactical Frontline Fighter) and the Chinese Chengdu J-20 are in the process of entering service. The sanctions following Russia‚Äôs invasion of Ukraine make it unlikely the Su-57 will ever see mass production.
    • There is significant criticism against the USA for marketing the F-35 as an air superiority fighter. Sure it can do the job, but compared to even fourth generation fighters (especially upgraded 4++ generation Sukhois) it's woefully underpowered - both in terms of thrust as well as turning rate. The counter-argument is that neither of those things matter in modern air to air combat; fights are more likely to be decided by which side can get the drop on the other, launch missiles, and fade away before the other side can respond. Which is why what it does have is stealth, an advanced sensor suite, and networking capabilities that far outstrip the Russian and Chinese offerings. Which is not that surprising since it was developed under the Joint Strike Fighter program.
    • The Su-47 Berkut was only a demonstrator of the type, although elements will almost certainly feature in the final design of the Su-57, if they ever actually make more than six of them.


Dedicated bombers appeared during the final stages of World War One - big, lumbering, multi-engined beasts with multiple machine-gun mounts for self-defence and many, many, many bombs in their bellies. Before that, the most heavily armed aircraft to ever exist(sporting as many as twenty-five guns!), Zeppelins, carried obscene payloads of bombs and sometimes even other aircraft, and were used for strategic bombing. However, they were used mostly for naval patrols instead of being dedicated bombers. Between the wars, the idea that "the bomber will always get through" led Britain and France to neglect their fighter forces with near-disastrous results. With the advent of the Cold War, bombers gained a new role - they were the main delivery system for nuclear weapons and were designed to fly very low or very high to avoid detection. With the advent of ballistic missiles for nukes and guided missiles for conventional arms, the traditional bomber faded from service. They're still useful for some things - they can carry a lot of bombs a long way, so the US keeps some B-52s around in case saturation bombing is needed. Post-WW2, the advent of jet fighters and especially guided missiles led to defensive armament being largely abandoned, since an enemy fighter would rarely come close enough to be threatened by a bomber's machine guns and thus the defensive turrets that WW2 bombers relied on were now useless extra weight.

In the most recent conflicts, bombers have found new life and tactical importance as their role shifts from saturation bombing to air support. Their long range translates into long loiter times and wide areas of coverage. Their high capacity means they can carry a wide range of different weapons in their bays all at once, suitable to provide whatever fire support the troops on the ground need. Bombers such as the B-1 and B-52 can hang out in an Area of Operations (AO) for eight or more hours at a time and quickly respond to trouble spots

The standard for "bombers" is high these days, with the International Institute of Strategic Studies setting a 10,000kg weapons load as the lower limit. About 8 aircraft (B-52, B-1B, B-2, Tu-22M, Xian H-6, Tu-95, F-15E and Tu-160) today qualify.

Ground Attack

Sometimes these are dedicated aircraft (such as the famous Stukas and Sturmoviks of WW2), other times they're just modified fighters. Ground Attack aircraft are designed for pinpoint surgical strikes on small moving targets that bombers aren't practical for, such as tanks, artillery, trains, infantry. During the two world wars, this was accomplished by flying very low and packing bombs, rockets, cannon and whatever else could be thought of. These days, Ground Attack aircraft have more or less entirely taken over the traditional strategic role of the bomber as well thanks to smart weapons. There's even a subcategory of the mission called "Wild Weasel", where your whole objective is to go in first, (hopefully) thread your way through whatever array of ground-based anti-air defenses the enemy has up, and destroy it all, so that your pals can come in unmolested later. (See "Electronic Warfare" below for more details.)

Helicopters are often used for Ground Attack duties (the famous US Cobra and Apache types, for instance), as they can hover behind terrain before "popping up" and launching missiles, thus minimising the amount of time that the enemy can shoot back. Airplanes that share the role also share some performance characteristics: they tend to be small, nimble and relatively slow-moving. Perhaps the epitome of the role is the US A-10 Thunderbolt II, AKA the Warthog, which can't break the sound barrier, looks really awkward, is built around a huge gatling gun and can still fly with half the wings and engines shot off. Again, though, the advent of precision guided weapons means that just about any airplane can perform this role, because the pilot doesn't have to be smart; the bomb does all the thinking.

One well known subtype of attack aircraft is the SVTOL (Short/Vertical TakeOff and Landing) attack plane. The most famous example is the US/UK Harrier, the infamous 'Jumpjet'. Planes with this capability are generally used for ground support because they don't have the range or speed to go toe-to-toe with true fighters but their ability to land anywhere allows them to stay near the front lines in support of ground troops, and they can carry more weight (read: bombs, missiles, and rockets) than most attack helicopters. That same ability also makes them popular as naval aircraft for countries without full-sized carriers.


Yeah, yeah. Not exactly glamorous, but stuff needs moving, and transport aircraft can move it quicker than boats. Just not as much of it at once. First used on a large scale during World War II, notably for dropping paratroops and then resupplying them, and you'll often see them in footage from disaster areas where they fly in aid. Modern transport aircraft are often designed to be able to land on short and rough fields, allowing them to fly in aid (or troops if need be) to anywhere, not just somewhere with an airport.

Transport is also the other main job of the helicopter, which really can land pretty much anywhere.

Different "classes" of transport exist, but distinct "generations" of transport are less clear-cut as this is one role that an old, well-proven design can actually best a state-of-the-art, high-tech whiz-bang engineering marvel in.

  • Light Transports - Single-engined workhorses like the still-used Antonov An-2 "Colt", a biplane powered by a single massive radial engine (piston power) and twin-engine small transports like the venerable C-47 Skytrain (Military version of the Douglas DC-3 Dakota, one of the most revered designs in all of aviation), and more recently turboprop planes similar to the small prop airliners used now for short-distance commercial flights, and biz-jet sized transports, these planes are for small loads. Not a lot of capacity but the things are dependable and effective. Basically the aviation equivalent to a moving-van. These aircraft carry no more than a few tons.

  • Medium Freighter - Bigger than the light transport, but still able to operate from rough, short, unpaved or otherwise "rugged" airfields, this class is one of the few that can be truly described as synonymous with a single aircraft: the legendary Lockheed C-130 Hercules. Aviation's answer to the P-1000 heavy mail van (the type of van UPS uses). Tough and noisy but it gets the packages delivered. These aircraft usually carry 15-35 tons of cargo, the legendary Hercules can carry 22.

  • Tactical Heavy Airlifter - Despite the name, a class with freight capacity roughly equal to the Medium Freighter, but can travel a longer distance before needing to refuel. The C-17 could be considered an example of this, or the now-retired Lockheed C-141 StarLifter. Sometimes used to transport a LOT of personnel at once. In the road vehicle weight comparison, one of these for personnel transport is the aviation version of a Greyhound bus.

  • Strategic Heavy Airlifter - This one is the true heavy airlifter. Very few of these exist. The C-5 Galaxy for the Western World, and the Russian counterpart, the Antonov An-124 "Condor". Aviation counterpart to the semi-truck (a Lorry if you're British). These aircraft carry anything in the range of 70-150 tons. Recently, the development of Hybrid Airships(airships that are partially heavier-than-air, like a plane) in both DARPA and the Army, has shaken up the Strategic Heavy Airlifter niche, with their highly useful capability of carrying 2-5 hundred of tons of supplies and landing on any flat surface, all rather economically, albeit slowly.

  • Special Purpose Superheavy Airlifter - Considered by some to merely be a subcategory of the Strategic Heavy Airlifter, this category is primarily the realm of extensively-modified Strategic Heavy Airlifters like the two C-5 Galaxy aircraft modified by NASA to aid in transporting heavy rocket parts, and of "one-off" planes built as derivatives of existing types (such as the Myaschischev VM-T "Atlant" (never given a NATO Reporting Name) or its eventual replacement, the truly massive six-engined Antonov An-225 Mriya (known to NATO as the "Cossack")(sadly destroyed during the Russo-Ukrainian war). These planes are built to hoist aloft freight that even a Strategic Heavy Airlifter would struggle to carry. Due to how unusual such missions are, these planes are never built in large numbers.


As You Know, knowing is half the battle. Reconnaissance was the first combat job undertaken by aircraft, and remains one of the most importance. Cameras have been used since the Great War, and remain the main plank of Recon to this day, though the cameras themselves have improved markedly. Some recon aircraft are purpose-built, but most are adapted from fighters or bombers. Nowadays, unmanned drone airplanes, helicopters and airships conduct surveillance in a variety of roles, ranging from hand-launched spyplanes to ultra-long-endurance high-altitude drone airships.

There is in fact a 34-nation treaty called the Treaty on Open Skies allowing unarmed recce flights over signatory countries to a set quota.

Reconnaissance aircraft break down into a number of very distinct sub-types:

  • Photoreconnaissance: These aircraft are what people usually think of when they talk about spy planes. They fly over the area of interest and take pictures of it, hopefully without being intercepted by enemy air defenses, and return the pictures to intelligence analysts. In modern times these have been largely replaced by spy satellites, but they do still have a niche role in situations where a spy satellite either will take too long to image an area, has limtied coverage, or insufficient resolution. They further break down based on how they intend to avoid interception:
    • Fly really high: This is the approach taken by the U-2, which flies on the edge of space. This worked well enough until the USSR developed very long-range surface-to-air missiles and high flying interceptor aircraft.
    • Fly really fast: The SR-71, the fastest air-breathing aircraft in history, took this approach, as do many converted fighters.
    • Avoid detection: This is the approach taken by most unmanned surveillance drones, being stealthy, quiet, and small.
    • Fly with Escorts: This works, but has several drawbacks. During wartime it's simple enough, but at that point you're placing many more aircraft in danger than may be necessary and possibly tipping your enemy off as to your intentions (or at least your intelligence priorities). During peacetime, flying large numbers of fighters into another country's airspace alongside your recon aircraft will probably be taken as a provocation and lead to a crisis.
  • Radar Imaging: Similar to photoreconnaissance, except the ground is imaged by radar instead of a camera.
  • Signals Intelligence (SIGINT): These aircraft can usually be identified by the profusion of odd-looking antennae and domes sticking out of them; their job is to listen to the electromagnetic spectrum and try to get information about the enemy from it. Because this can be done at some range from enemy airspace, their method of avoiding interception is typically just not getting close enough to be intercepted, or flying with escorts. They also have several subtypes:
    • Electronic Intelligence (ELINT)/Measurement and Signature Intelligence (MASINT): Listening to non-communications signals, like radars and jammers, to try to identify and locate their sources, or figure out what they are doing.
    • Communications Intelligence (COMINT): "Reading the enemy's mail" and "listening to their phone calls and radio traffic".

Maritime patrol

AKA sub-hunting. Maritime patrol aircraft need to be big enough to carry sensitive sonar and magnetic detection equipment, and be able to stay airborne for long periods (it's not uncommon for them to carry two crews and rotate them). They are often converted airliners (such as the British Nimrod, adapted from the Comet airliner) or bombers (such as the Russian "Bear".) Most carry one or two torpedoes, though some, such as the US P-3 Orion, can carry as many as eight. They are particularly useful for antisubmarine warfare mainly because they travel much faster than submarines and the hunted sub usually can't shoot back. Indeed, most surface sailors would much prefer to stay out of torpedo range and let the flyboys do the work if it's at all possible. Blimps and airships were the preferred aircraft for this role, serving with spectacular success during WW1, WW2 and on through the Cold War, until the invention of the Nuclear Submarine—which never needs to surface or snorkel during a patrol—rendered them obsolete.

Helicopters also do this job, and though their range is shorter and payload smaller, they can land on small frigates, destroyers, and cruisers, potentially giving a formidable antisub capability to almost every ship in a fleet.

Air-to-air refueling tankers

Extending the range and endurance of other aircraft is very practical and these are very valuable "force multipliers". The US has by far the biggest fleet of these, although some other nations have a few. Converted from airliners, generally, they refuel other aircraft in-flight. This is not a 100% successful activity (one reason why this was never adopted for commercial aviation, despite some experiments). Examples include the KC-135 StratoTanker (a modified Boeing 707), the KC-10 Extender (a modified Douglas DC-10) and the Russian Il-78 "Midas". Some ground attack aircraft and fighters carry "buddy stores", allowing to refuel other aircraft. Historically that's a Russian thing, as their tanker force has been historically poor, but it's also popular among naval users, since it reduces how many different airframes the carrier must keep and maintain aboard. There two primary of methods of midair refueling:

  • Flying Boom: This is where the tanker aircraft has a long boom with a pipe in it, that is "flown" by an operator in the tanker, and connects to a small receptacle on the receiving aircraft. The advantages of this are that typically it allows a higher fuel flow rate, meaning more and larger planes can be serviced, it is easier on the pilot of the receiving aircraft, and the equipment required on the receiving aircraft is lighter and smaller. The chief disadvantages are that it requires dedicated large aircraft with specially trained operators, and it's impossible to use on helicopters, whose rotor blades would collide with the boom. This is the method of choice for the US Air Force, with it's fleet of large, fuel-hungry bombers and plenty of runway space for large dedicated tankers.
  • Probe and Drogue: In this method the sending aircraft merely tows a hose with a drogue around it that gives it drag and causes it to stream out behind it. The receiving aircraft must have a probe that sticks out from the plane and maneuver to connect to the hose. The chief advantage of this is that nearly any aircraft can perform the role of tanker without a specialist aboard, using a "buddy store" pack that contains the hose reel and bolts onto the sending aircraft, and that helicopters can be refueled. The disadvantage is a lower fuel flow rate, and the fact that all the receiving aircraft must be equipped with a heavy and potentially un-aerodynamic probe setup. This is the method of choice for the US Navy, whose tanker aircraft must be small and light enough to fit on an aircraft carrier.

Airborne radars / AEW&C

The acronym stands for "Airborne Early Warning And Control." Again usually airships or converted airliners (although helicopters are used too), these aircraft, identifiable by the big saucer-like (or rod-like) things often stuck on top of them, are used to monitor large sections of airspace (as in hundreds of thousands of square miles), vectoring in aircraft to do various things: hit this; don't hit that; be aware of enemies to the left; protect these friends; and keeping everyone up-to-date on how the battle's going.

The US E-3 Sentry is a particularly good example of this type, operated by the US, the UK and NATO on a collective level. The NATO Sentries form the entire Air Force of Luxembourg, despite being based in Germany. In other words, Luxembourg can't do much fighting itself... but boy can it call for friends.

Electronic Warfare

With the advent of radar and surface-to-air missiles, preventing the enemy from locking onto a strike force became important. These aircraft, often converted fighters or ground attack aircraft, use powerful jamming devices to jam radar signals. Many also carry anti-radiation missiles, which home on radar sources and destroy the radars. You used to be able to stop these by just switching off your radar, but now they can remember their targets. The presence of these can force a SAM battery to not even take part in a fight. On the other hand, jammer aircraft tend to vulnerable to enemy fighters though there have been exceptions, and the development of SAMs with passive home-on-jamming features might change the game once again.


The first helicopter to achieve fully controlled flight was the Focke-Wulf Fw 61 in 1936. The earliest helicopters, limited by underpowered engines note  were not good for very much other than reconnaissance and maybe very light transport and medevac duties (like that chopper you see in every episode of M*A*S*H). As the technology developed, the helicopters became more robust and could carry heavier payloads, which for a time mostly translated to carrying more people. They saw use in both the Army and the Navy due to their ability to hover over the ground and because they did not need runways or full-length flight decks like airplanes did. Later on, they began to mount weapons on them for self defense, then decided to mount more weapons on them, to actively go after the enemy. The bulky transport designs were slimmed down to the sleek sexy attack choppers we know today (including the American Apaches and Cobras, and the Russian Mi-28's, Ka-50 Alligators and Ka-52 Black Sharks (known by the western militaries as the Havok, Hokum A and Hokum B, respectively).

Helicopters, in their own way, fill many of the same niches that fixed-wing airplanes do, with a few exceptions. Helicopters rarely, if ever, engage in air to air combat, being designed primarily for air-to-surface roles. Also, there is a practical size limitation for how big you can make a helicopter before it's more trouble than it's worth, so they don't get used for strategic airlift. They can do a few tricks that most airplanes can't do, including hovering in place or sling-loading bulky cargo underneath them. In navies they have replaced ASW airships, and can hunt submarines or use their radar equipment from high altitudes to give the fleet a better ability to detect incoming threats, sometimes even going so far as to act as decoys to draw anti-ship missiles away from the fleet.

Helicopters inherently have to expend energy to stay aloft, and as such they are quite Cool, but Inefficient, burning fuel at a frightening rate. They are also inherently noisy, and cannot fly at very high altitudes, while simultaneously carrying only modest payloads and being exorbitantly expensive to buy and operate. These drawbacks are important to keep in mind, considering all of the unrealistic things helicopters are portrayed as doing in fiction, such as the Black Helicopter, a trope devoted to using helicopters for extended, stealthy surveillance, despite being arguably the worst type of aircraft for the job.

You might have noticed a certain theme with how the American Army names their helicopters: They are all named for Native American tribes (the UH-1 Huey is officially known as the "Iroquois"; there is no "Huey" tribe of Native Americansnote ). Navy, Marine, and Air Force helicopters do not follow this system as a rule, although airframes derived from Army helicopters will often feature similar names (the Navy "Seahawk" and the Air Force "Pavehawk" variants of the Army Blackhawk helicopter, for instance).


Airships were the first powered aircraft ever invented, coming into existence before the American Civil War, and they have seen surprisingly extensive military use. In fiction, they are notable for having tons of Diesel Punk and Steampunk cred, as well as being used to indicate alternate realities or being just plain cool. Airships are any steerable or powered aircraft that use buoyancy from lighter-than-air gases to get some or all of their lift. Expect nautical terms and themes to be everywhere, in fiction and in real life. They're not called airships for nothing.

Airships are poorly understood aircraft. If airplanes can be considered the Jack of All Stats or Fragile Speedster of aircraft, and helicopters a Glass Cannon, then airships would be roughly analagous to a Mighty Glacier. They are only about 1/4 or 1/5 as fast as a jet airliner, or slightly slower than a helicopter, but they have the benefit of having the highest payloads of any aircraft as well as being the most durable type of aircraft(when not filled with Hydrogen) and have long endurance. Surprisingly, they're also quite cheap, relative to comparable aircraft, due to their mechanical simplicity. Their main drawbacks are their bulk, which makes landing difficultnote  and storage expensive. There's also the fact that foul weather, while easily survivable, ruins their speed and fuel efficiency, forcing them to either retreat or fly around squalls and hurricanes, similar to helicopters.

There are many types of airship, even more than there are types of airplane. Today, there are four main groups. Aerostats are the most common, airships which are moored to the ground with a tether and used for surveillance. These can be small or quite large, and often carry distinctive radomes and have inflatable fins. Blimps are non-rigid steerable balloons which use slight internal pressure to maintain their shape, and are still used, albeit more rarely than aerostats. Zeppelins, airships with external frames and internal cargo spaces, have almost died out completely in the military, but they were used extensively in the past, until Hydrogen gave Zeppelins bad rap. The last kind of airship has just been recently invented, the Hybrid Airship, which can be a blimp or a Zeppelin, but is heavier-than-air. This allows them to carry truly gargantuan payloads, with the added safety margins of a plane and the efficiency and scale of an airship.

In fiction, airships in the military are often portrayed as Awesome, but Impractical. However, their actual military role has been more Boring, but Practical. This wasn't necessarily true in the early days of World War One, because Zeppelins and airships were pressed into sometimes spectacular roles due to the simple nonexistence of alternative aircraft. They were used as heavy bombers, flying out in armadas to bomb cities. Even more spectacularly, they are the only aircraft capable of being a true Airborne Aircraft Carrier. But their more common usage was to escort shipping, hunt submarines and conduct long naval patrols. Eventually their Hydrogen weakness was exploited by the invention of the incendiary bullet, and airships' true value as a defensive rather than offensive weapon was developed, in conjunction with the use of non-flammable Helium. By WW2, airships were used to great effect, and continued to due so well into the cold war. In fact, the US Navy's last blimp, used for research purposes, wasn't retired until 2017.

Today, airships are mainly used for surveillance, a role they are highly suited to. They are many times cheaper than drones and hundreds of times cheaper than satellites, but are often more effective than either because they can carry more payload and have much higher endurance. Their large payloads are also being developed for strategic heavy airlift, where their low speed is counterbalanced by their fuel efficiency and low cost.


Of course, an aircraft's capabilities are all a moot point without people who know how to fly it, so you need aircraft that the rookies can learn to fly in. These generally don't need to do much more than fly, so payload is less important. That said, they do come in multiple subcategories to account for different 'stages' of flight-training.

  • Rudimentary Trainer - This is often similar or even identical to the bog-standard single-engine general-aviation light aircraft sold on the civilian market like a twin-seat Cessna 150 or other high-wing piston engined plane In fact, until 1993, the mainstay for novice US Air Force flight students was an aircraft called the T-41 which was quite literally an off-the-shelf Cessna 172, the classic single-engine high-wing four-seat fixed-tricycle gear plane that pilots around the world have known and loved for years. The Air Force keeps 4 T-41s flight-ready at the Air Force Academy to this day. Many trainers of this type are piston-engined. A few of the really high-end ones use a turboprop instead.
  • Aerobatic Trainer - A few of these are still piston powered. The now-retired T-34 Mentor was a long-serving mainstay in this role, aerobatic trainers are usually low-wing single-engine propeller aircraft, capable of aerobatic maneuvers that most high-wing Cessnas would not be able to do for long. Today, the bulk of these are single-engine turboprop aircraft like the Beechcraft T-6A Texan (not to be confused with the AT-6 Texan used as a trainer by the 'States in WW2, though it too was an aerobatic trainer) that now serves as the mainstay of this type in the US Air Force
  • Subsonic Jet Trainer - Two-seat jet aircraft with one or two engines. For the latter half of the Cold War, most US Air Force pilots' first time piloting a jet was sitting at the controls of the Cessna T-37 Tweet. This straight-winged, twin-engined jet had a cockpit which seated student and instructor side-by-side. To the north, many RCAF pilots had their first taste of controlling a jet in the cockpit of the similarly configured but single-engined CT-114 Tudor aircraft, which to this day remains the plane flown by Canada's aerobatic team, the Snowbirds. Faster subsonic jet trainers include the swept-wing, tandem seat British Aerospace Hawk, which the RAF's aerobatic team, the Red Arrows, use as their plane of choice. An increasing number of planes in this role are abandoning the side-by-side seating arrangement in favor of tandem seating, however, and they are gradually vanishing and/or merging into the next type:
  • Supersonic Trainer - Two-seat jet aircraft with one or two engines, almost always seating student and teacher in tandem, these planes often look like fighters without the weapon mounting hardpoints, and frequently are used by aerobatic teams. The US Air Force's long-running supersonic trainer is the Northrop T-38 Talon, which was the plane used by the Thunderbirds team until the late '80s when the F-16 supplanted it in that glamorous role.