The armed forces of the United States of America are generally regarded as being altogether the most powerful military force in history. The second-largest military in the world in terms of active personnel, with two million active and reserve personnel, the US also has the second largest existing stock of active nuclear weapons. With eleven aircraft carriers to serve as mobile airstrips (and a lot of amphibious assault ships), and basing rights on every continent except Antarctica (which no one has basing rights to), the US military has a global reach and relative budget as great as that of The British Empire in her heyday.
The US military is so powerful because theirs is the world's single-largest economy, and the equivalent value of 4% of everything bought and sold in the country is spent on the military.* The United States' spending on its military has generally remained above this level since about 1940, when it first decided to field a military on the same level as the other Great Powers of the day, and the cumulative effect of this high spending has been an increase of its capabilities. The United States' World War II and Cold War military budgets were much higher than today's, and when paired with US belligerency scared the Soviets so much it nearly resulted in World War III on two notable occasions.* After the conciliatory attitude of Ronald Reagan laid Soviet fears of annihilation to rest, the USSR's long-term high military expenses (previously needed to keep up with the US) caught up with her and contributed to her relatively peaceful self-dismemberment and suicide.
Today the United States' military spending represents over a third of that of the entire world. Vast sums, greater than most countries' entire military budgets, are continually poured into various military R&D projects. To give another perspective, total US military spending is greater than the next ten highest countries combined.
The American military has seven component branches:
The United States Coast Guard is officially part of the Department of Homeland Security in peacetime. In wartime, they switch over to the Department of Defense. They're also a federal regulatory agency. In any case, they do both military and law enforcement. Specifically, the Coast Guard handles things such as maintaining aids to navigation, marine safety, both military and civilian search and rescue, port security, and maritime interception operations. They can also provide law enforcement expertise to other branches (for example, when the Navy is going after pirates). In WWII, the Coast Guard manned destroyers and landing craft,note and one of their cutters took part in the battle at Pearl Harbor. Recently, they signed an agreement with the Navy that briefly allowed a limited number of Coast Guardsmen to serve with the SEALs.
The National Guard is a reserve made up of each state's organized militia, and includes both Army (Army National Guard) and Air Force (Air National Guard) units that can be mobilized by their respective state governments or "federalized" by the U.S. Department of Defense. Like each service's individual and organized reservists, the National Guard is made up of ordinary citizens (including veterans of active-duty Air Force and Army service) who, after having completed intensive basic and advanced training, serve one weekend a month plus two weeks a year — hence the nickname "weekend warriors" (also used for reservists). As troops of their respective state governments, they're primarily employed in peacetime for the suppression of civil disorder (the Army is legally barred from doing this) and assistance in handling natural disasters, but are relied upon by the Army and the Air Force both as combat forces and support elements in time of war.
In addition to the National Guard, there are 27 active State Defense Forces which serve as separate state militias. They operate with the Governor as their commander-in-chief. Typically, have the same duties as the National Guard, such as the suppression of civil disorder and the handling natural disasters. Unlike the National Guard, the state defense forces cannot be federalized without consent of the state's governor and sometimes legislature. This is because they're meant to provide the governor with a trained military force when the state's National Guard units are deployed elsewhere. Members with prior service experience retain their ranks and can advance in grade as awarded by the state, so the rank structure is somewhat inflated with the idea that they'll form a trained unit cadre (core) should a worst case scenario happen. During WWII and the Cold War, they were expected to defend their states from foreign invasion, but today they serve to help respond to national security issues, and are generally trained to be equal to their National Guard counterparts. The actual results vary with each state due to funding, local culture, local needs and interests. Many are starting to be put their paces with this recent spate of natural disasters, and so far have been doing a fair job of it. Many of their members and usually all of their senior leadership are veterans of the regular military, reserve, or National Guard.
Follow the Leader: The Chain of Command
As with every military of the entire world, the United States Armed Forces has a chain of command that every enlisted man and officer sworn into the forces must follow, without fail. Trouble is, given the size of it all it can get complicated the lower down you go, and some of the obvious leaders in the haystack actually have zero power.
The buck stops with (of course), the President of the United States who constitutionally is the commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces. He has the sole authority to dispatch and remove troops from war zones even without a declaration of war from Congress. However, per the War Powers Resolution of 1973, Congress must approve any troop deployments longer than 60 daysnote . In modern times, the President traditionally delegates military matters to his advisors and SecDef, in stark contrast to predecessors like George Washington (the only President to lead troops in battle during his presidency) and Abraham Lincoln (who actively marshalled the American Civil War, personally appointing Ulysses S. Grant head of the Union Armies).
Sidenote, 32 of the 46 Presidents were in the military at some point, and some even used it to push their way to the presidency. 17 were in the Army, 9 in the state militias or National Guard and 6 in the Navy. George Washington is one of two officers to earn the rank of General of the Armies of the United States (the other being John J. Pershing), Andrew Jackson was a Major General who rose to fame in the War of 1812, Ulysses S. Grant was head of the Union Armies during the American Civil War and Dwight D. Eisenhower was Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II.
For more details about the Presidency itself, see The Presidents of the United States.
The Secretary of Defense
Current holder: Lloyd Austin (2021-present, under Joe Biden)
Below the President is the Secretary of Defense, the Cabinet-level official who runs the United States Department of Defense as "the principal assistant to the President on matters relating" to the department. Any war movie that takes place after 1947 probably has him in it, and it's best not to be underdressed in front of him. The position is relatively recent by modern standards, having been formed from the offices of the Secretary of the Army and the Secretary of the Navy* , themselves preceded by the Secretary of War. One could call the Secretary (abbreviated as SecDef) the "deputy commander-in-chief", since his powers exceed that of any commissioned officer in the Armed Forces. Prior military experience is not required to be Secretary of Defense* , though it comes highly recommended.
As with many defense/ armed forces ministers throughout the world (except notably, Russia), the position of SecDef is held by a non-uniformed civilian to maintain civilian control of the military. Any military officer eyeing the throne must have been retired from active duty for at least seven years, though a waiver can be granted by the Senate. The current SecDef, Lloyd Austin (the first African American to be SecDef), is the third person to be granted this waiver, having retired from the Army in 2016 as commander of United States Central Command (USCENTCOM). The previous two are George Marshall in 1950 (de facto head of the US Army in World War II) and Jim Mattis in 2017 (even though Trump later fired him anyway).
Ever since the Goldwater-Nichols Act nullified the powers of the service chiefs, the combatant commanders have been the top brass of the US military, in the United States itself and worldwide. Since World War II, as the least badly hit and most powerful military in the world, the United States is the only country capable of maintaining large swaths of armed troops in outside nations, especially in cooperations with multinational coalitions like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United Nations, making unified combatant commands to lead forces in those areas a necessity.
So what is a combatant commander anyway? A combatant commander is a four-star general or admiral responsible for all American armed forces in a geographic area of responsibility (usually by continent) or a specific aspect of the military (transportation, strategy, special operations). This is specifically so all armed forces regardless of service are under effective command in peace and wartime. The combatant commanders report directly to the Secretary of Defense, and not their respective service chiefs. Currently, there are 11 unified combatant commands:
United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM)
Current commander: GEN Stephen J. Townsend, U.S. Army
Headquarters: Kelley Barracks, Stuttgart, Germany
In charge of military operations in all of Africa except Egypt, which is under Central Command. The United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM) has its main target in East African terrorist group al-Shabaab, active in Somalia, Kenya and Yemen. It is the first combatant command to not have a permanent base in their area of operations, instead housed in Germany next to the European Command in neighbouring Patch Barracks. This is because most African nations are either vying for the spot since it will earn them all of the cash, or protesting US involvement on their soil. Only Liberia has expressed public willingness for an AFRICOM base in their country. So far, little permanent forces are assigned to AFRICOM, with their army, air force, navy and marine components being combined with European Command's units. Until 2008, they were part of US Central Command.
United States Central Command (USCENTCOM)
Current commander: Gen Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr, U.S. Marine Corps
Headquarters: MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Florida, United States
If you follow news on Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, people getting blown up by a robot god at Giza or... literally anywhere in the Middle East, you've probably heard of these guys. Responsible for military operations in the Middle East* , Central Asia and parts of South Asia, the United States Central Command (USCENTCOM) is the busiest of the bunch, given that The War on Terror has its nesting grounds in the region. Officers who commanded this region have become household names, including Martin Dempsey (first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Barack Obama), David Petraeus (rose to fame for the Iraq War and War in Afghanistan) Jim Mattis (aka Mad Dog, Trump's first SecDef) and current Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
Under them is US Army Central (USARCENT), US Air Forces Central Command (USAFCENT/Ninth Air Force), US Marine Corps Forces Central Command (USMARCENT) and US Naval Forces Central Command (USNAVCENT/US Fifth Fleet). Their headquarters is not in the Middle East; unlike USAFRICOM they actually have forward operating bases in the region. The special NATO task force Resolute Support Mission (at least the American contingent) is also answerable to them, since the task force is commanded by a four-star American general.
United States European Command (USEUCOM)
Current commander: Gen Tod D. Walters, U.S. Air Force
Headquarters: Patch Barracks, Stuttgart, Germany (currently relocating to Belgium)
Another one you've probably heard of, especially if you're a World War II enthusiast. Descended from the European theater of operations during World War II, the United States European Command (USEUCOM) is in deep with NATO. How deep? So deep that the combatant commander and SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander Europe) have been held by the same person, an American four-star officer since its creation in 1951, its first commander was Dwight D. Eisenhower and its second is Matthew Ridgway! Yes, that Ridgway. Obviously, USEUCOM is responsible for all operations in Europe, including Russia and until 2021, Israel. Their headquarters has been in Germany since its inception, though there are plans to move to Belgium in the wake of its neighbour, US African Command.
Aside from NATO forces, under them is US Army Europe (USAREUR), US Naval Forces Europe (USNAVEUR/US Sixth Fleet), US Air Forces Europe (USAFEUR/Third Air Force) and US Marine Corps Forces, Europe (USMAREUR).
United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM)
Current commander: ADM John C. Aquilino, U.S. Navy
Headquarters: Camp H. M. Smith, Hawaii, United States
The oldest of the combatant commands, the United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) is also the largest, responsible for military operations in the entire Indo-Pacific region i.e. most of Asia, China, Australia and the entire Pacific Ocean. However, its greatest achievements came before it was ever created. Their naval component, the US Pacific Fleet was the star player of World War II in the Pacific. The race to avenge the bombing of their Pearl Harbor headquarters in 1941 was the driving force behind the near-destruction of the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Battle of Midway, commanded by Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, himself under the leadership of the late, great Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, from whom the supercarrier USS Nimitz is named after.
Besides the standard army, navy, air force and marine components, INDOPACOM also has operating forces in Japan and South Korea (aka the ones preventing North Korea from charging into another Korean War). US Forces Japan, centered in Okinawa, and US Forces Korea, headquartered in Pyeongtaek, maintain considerable numbers in their respective countries. Like with SACEUR, the commander of US Forces in Korea is also dual-hatted as head of the United Nations Command, the multinational military force that protects the South from North Korean invasion.
United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM)
Current commander: Gen Glen D. VanHerck, U.S. Air Force
Headquarters: Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado Springs, Colorado, United States (also HQ for NORAD)
If you're an American citizen, chances are USNORTHCOM is the one protecting your skies right now. The United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) is in charge of protecting the continental United States and its neighbours i.e. Canada, Alaska, Puerto Rico and Mexico. US Atlantic Command and US Joint Forces Command previously held responsibility before being disestablished in 1999 and 2011 respectively. However, note that this is not NORAD. NORAD, or the North American Aerospace Defense Command is a joint organization of American and Canadian forces to monitor their airspace for threats and would likely be the first to know if a big giant nuke was approaching. It's just convenient that NORTHCOM's commander is also head of NORAD. Cheyenne, despite how awesome it looks (and it is!), is only the secondary headquarters for NORAD. Neither does NORAD have a supercomputer that wants to nuke humanity to kingdom come, but they do track Santa's journey every December.
As the first line of defense for an invasion of the United States, USNORTHCOM has a lot of units assigned to it, many of which are equipped to train forces not just for itself, but other combatant commands worldwide. Its army component also has the small US Army Alaska attached to it, naval component US Fleet Forces Command (to be renamed US Atlantic Fleet) also has some control of naval forces in USSOUTHCOM, and Air Forces Northern (USARNORTH/First Air Force) also has operational control of the Civil Air Patrol, the auxiliary of the United States Air Force.
United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM)
Current commander: ADM Craig S. Faller, U.S. Navy
Headquarters: Doral, Florida
South America and the Caribbean are the business of the United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM). The smallest of the combatant commands when established, it was the only one to have a three-star instead of a four-star officer commanding it. Among their areas of responsibility is the Panama Canal, especially to prevent an incident like what happened with Suez. When necessary, their forces support immediate neighbour NORTHCOM up in the continental United States.
Forces assigned to them include US Army South (USARSOUTH/US Sixth Army), Air Forces Southern (USARSOUTH/Twelfth Air Force), US Naval Forces Southern Command (USNAVSOUTH/US Fourth Fleet) and US Marine Corps Forces, South (USMARSOUTH). Of note is the special Joint Task Force - Guantanamo which has run Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and its infamous detention camps since 2002.
United States Space Command (USSPACECOM)
Current commander: GEN James H. Dickinson, U.S. Army
Headquarters: Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado Springs, Colorado, United States
The United States Space Command (USSPACECOM) was previously its own thing until 2002 when it was folded into Strategic Command, then became its own thing again in 2019 after the US Space Force was established. They are in charge of anything space-related in the US Armed Forces, meaning any military missions to space, satellites and possible future Space Battle with giant warships will be under their command. The United States Space Force on the other hand is responsible for prepping and running the well-oiled rockets, satellites and communications systems needed to make these battles happen. Currently headquartered in the same place as USNORTHCOM, though the search is on for a new location* .
Under their command are the space-oriented commands of each service branch, including the Space Operations Command of the US Space Force. They also have two independent commands: the Combined Force Space Component Command (CFSCC) which assesses the global space situation and relays information to the other combatant commands, and Joint Task Force Space Defense (JTF-SD) does the heavy-lifting of space superiority operations to deter enemies from threatening the States using space warfare.
United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM)
Current commander: GEN Richard D. Clarke, U.S. Army
Headquarters: MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Florida, United States
The result of the failed Operation Eagle Claw* , the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM, the namesake of the video games) has command and control over all deployed Special Forces units. The list includes but is not limited to: Army Special Forces (the "Green Berets"), Delta Force (technically an "operational detachment" of Special Forces), Army Rangers, the Navy's SEAL (SEa, Air, Land) Teams, US Air Force Special Operations, Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC), and many other groups not as well known. They also partner with intelligence agencies like the CIA (which has its own Special Activities Division), and many of these units cross-train with each other or attach to other US or allied military units as the mission demands. Also, the Secretary of Defense has the power to grant USSOCOM total control of all Special Operations Forces units, usually in cases of open war.
United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM)
Current commander: ADM Charles A. Richard, U.S. Navy
Headquarters: Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, United States
The ones who hold the Nuclear Option. The United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) has custody of the United States' many nuclear warheads and supports the service branches and other combatant commands with matters of space and missile defense as well as global command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR). Under their command is the United States Army Space and Missile Defense Command, Marine Corps Forces Strategic Command, United States Fleet Forces Command, Air Force Global Strike Command.
United States Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM)
Current commander: Gen Jacqueline D. Van Ovost, U.S. Air Force
Headquarters: Scott Air Force Base, St. Clair County, Illinois, United States
They handle all transportation matters in the United States Armed Force, established after a years-long ban on consolidating military transport functions. What's under their command include the Army's Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, the Navy's Military Sealift Command, the Air Force's Air Mobility Command and other such commands.
Responsibilities roughly break down as follows:
- The Army primarily fights on the land, supplying the infantrymen and mechanized firepower the Marine Corps cannot (see below). However, Army Rangers are expected to be capable of deploying anywhere in the world within 48 hours notice, making them, in addition to the Marines' Expeditionary Forces, first responders. The Army is considered the main land-based fighting force for the United States.
- The Navy primarily fights on or under the seas.
- The Air Force primarily fights in the sky. Air Force personnel are often tasked with providing close air support for infantry engagements, as well as maintaining air superiority in a given zone. The Air Force also has control over a large number of the United States' nuclear arsenal. The Air Force is so good at its air superiority role that it can claim that not a single American soldier on the ground has ever been so much as wounded by enemy aircraft since it was formed in 1947. Something that wasn't true in World War II.
- The Space Force primarily fights in space. However, more than that, the Space Force also maintains and defends space based infrastructure, such as the US military's satellite network, for the benefit of the other branches.
- The Marine Corps are a fast-responding multipurpose branch, with integrated air, land, and sea elements. At any given moment, two Marine Expeditionary Forces are at sea and ready to deploy at a word. Basically, they're often among the first military troops formally deployed into a zone. Marines, as their name would imply, specialize in amphibious warfare.
- The Coast Guard acts as a maritime law enforcement agency, with jurisdiction in both domestic and international waters; as a result, they tend to get featured more in law-enforcement contexts (e.g. intercepting drug runners and Cuban refugees on rafts). In wartime they take a coastal-defense role, working alongside the Navy.
- The National Guard acts as a reserve force in addition to the Army and Air Force's own reserves. In peacetime, they are primarily used to suppress civil disorder (the Army is legally barred from doing this, but National Guard are technically state militia and therefore have the authority to perform those tasks) and provide assistance in handling natural disasters. They also are a heavy part of support jobs during war time, such as military police, engineers, quartermasters and medical support.note
- USSOCOM's various special forces handle missions like counter-terrorism, hostage rescue, unconventional warfare, reconnaissance, infiltration, "direct action" (raids), and search and rescue. Soldiers from SOCOM, normally the Army's Special Forces operatives and Navy SEALs, are generally the first military troops to enter into a country before invasion, normally arriving before hostilities even begin. SOCOM troops are also trained in such actions as militia training and providing rebels with the expertise and firepower to successfully revolt against the current regime.
As an incredibly powerful military force the US has for some time had the luxury of practicing "asymmetrical warfare", in which it is possible to take very few losses because of the extent to which it outmatches its opponents. The last time this was not the case was the American Civil War.
The USA pairs this extreme aversion to death and wounding with a fairly bog-standard 'Combined-Arms Warfare' doctrine, under which the various combat and support arms co-operate rather than competing. Think the Transformers movie: Army calling for help from Air Force; Air Force calling for help from... Giant transforming robots, giant transforming robots calling for help from Action Survivors played by Shia LaBeouf, and Action Survivors calling for help from the Army. note
A statistic will say almost anything if you employ sufficient 'enhanced interrogation techniques' upon it, but the guesses are that there have been between 1.7 and 2.7 million Americans 'casualties' in war depending on your definition of a casualty (do non-lethal injuries count?),note "war" (does the Bay of Pigs invasion count?) and "Americans" (what about stuff during the Thirteen-Colonies period, or The American Civil War?).
Still, whatever the math, it's no small number. Hell, it rivals the number of Soviet military cripples and head-cases from the Second World War (2.9 million)! In fact, it's so large that, dating from 1776 and taking the largest figure, that works out to an average of 11,500 deaths a year (for comparison, since the 1980s about 40,000 Americans have been killed per year in car crashes).
Carriers For Wagner: American Military VehiclesAmerican military vehicles have been widely exported, sometimes after previous use — the General Belgrano, an Argentine Navy light cruiser sunk by the British in the Falklands War, had been an American light cruiser (the USS Phoenix [CL-46]). The most notable not mentioned in Peace Through Superior Firepower are:
- The Willys MB (and identical twin Ford GPW), known better around the world as the Jeep. Standard light vehicle of World War II and used for quite a while after that, it was and still is also widely purchased by civilians. The US Lend-Lease sent over 50,000 Willys Jeeps to the Soviet Union, which didn't produce an equivalent-sized vehicle and didn't realise how useful they could be until they got them — whereupon they seem to have fallen in love with the hardy little thing. For decades after "Willys" was a Russian slang term for light truck.
- For further reference, the M-38/CJ-5 which entered service in 1952 and the market for 1955 was the last Jeep model designed for both military and civilian purposes.
- The HMMWV (High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, Humvee or Hummer). Designed as a replacement for the Willys MB, but its chassis has been pressed into many, many other roles as well—not as glamorous as it sounds, because the HMMWV has no protection from land mines or IEDs. Its extreme width (designed to prevent rollovers, a common problem with the Jeeps) poses a major problem in dense urban or wooded environments, too.
- A slimmer civvie version (H1) was previously available. Very much a gas guzzler, so much so that it ran afoul of California fuel economy standards. A hydrogen-fueled version has seen limited use (the H2H).
- The Oshkosh M-ATV is an up-and-coming replacement to the HMMWV, designed to be everything from the outset that the Humvee wasn't—the M in M-ATV means MRAP, which means ... Mine Resistant Ambush Protected. Yeah, they really got the hint about the Humvee's main weakness.
- What is kind of scary is that this things looks like the EDF Jeep from Red Faction: Guerrilla.
- Or perhaps the EDF Jeep looks like the M-ATV!
- The M2 Bradley is the current primary infantry fighting vehicle for the US Army. Designed to be able to carry up to six troops and be able to keep up with the M1 Abrams, the Bradley has played a key role in American mechanized warfare. Built as an answer to the Soviet BMP-2, the Bradley is capable of carrying and supporting troops as well as engaging enemy armor. The Bradley is armed with a 25 mm chain gun, TOW missiles, and firing ports for the troops inside.
- The Stryker is a new family of armored combat vehicles that seek to replace the US Army's older vehicles. The Stryker is an embodiment the US armed forces' new emphasis on speed, compact size, light weight, and versatility. Capable of carrying up to 9 troops, the Stryker provides much need protection and combat support, yet is small and light enough to be carried on a standard C-130. It can also be modified for a number of specialized uses such as artillery support, mobile command vehicle, ambulance, and reconnaissance. The tradeoff for this speed and deployability is significantly less armor than its heavier cousins, but thanks to armor upgrades it is more than capable of taking whatever is thrown at it. Most Stykers are armed with the venerable Browning M2 heavy machine gun, though there are specialist variants armed with 105mm guns (mounted in a fully automated unmanned turret), antitank missiles and mortars for support fire.
- Arguably no tank is more iconic than the venerable M4 Sherman medium tank. While it didn't have the heavy armor or raw firepower of German tanks like the Panther or Tiger, and wasn't as dirt cheap to build as the Russian T-34, the Sherman made a name for itself by being a very effective Jack-of-All-Trades, being able to be modified to fit an almost endless number of uses. In addition, an unsung benefit the Sherman provided was its unmatched reliablity compared to contemprary tanks of the time. Because America had to ship Shermans overseas and away from the factories that built them, the Sherman had to be engineered so it would need as little mechanical support as possible. This meant that Shermans were put under such strict quality controls that a Sherman could drive for hundreds or even thousands of miles without breaking down, which was leagues ahead of competing foreign tanks which could hardly last a few dozen miles before needing a tow. Add on top if its ability to operate in nearly any climate condition, and it's now wonder that a whopping 50,000 of the tanks were built over the course of the war. The Sherman proved to be such a robust design that the very last Shermans to be retired from active duty from an organized military was in 2018.
- The M1 Abrams' is America's main battle tank. It was born to defend bottlenecks in West Germany like the Fulda Gap and Hof Corridor during the Cold War from the relatively inexpensive and even more numerous Soviet tanks. That's why the first iteration of the Abrams, rolled out in 1981, had features like Chobham composite laminate armornote , a FLIR sensor suite (very expensive for the time), laser rangefinder and ballistic computer. It got the last piece of its original wish list with the M1A1, replacing the older 105mm/L52 M68 rifled main gun with the German Rheinmetall 120mm/L44 smoothbore main gun, licensed-made as the M256. The Abrams is also powered by a gas turbine. It's so fast that the Army puts a governor on the engine to keep them from speeding. With the governor removed, it can reach 70mph on a decent road—even though it weighs 68 tons. That's putting the "lightning" in Lightning Bruiser. Unfortunately, this means it's also a gas guzzler (roughly 1 gallon per mile, and it takes 10 gallons just to start the engine), and its speed leads to problems like having an entire Abrams unit run out of fuel and wait for five hours for fuel trucks to arrive. note On the other hand, its engine can accept most any commonly available flammable or combustible liquids as a fuel, compared to a diesel engine needing well, diesel. In a nonfiction book of his (Armored Cav), Tom Clancy recounted a story of an Abrams tank in the Gulf War. Having been immobilized by an enemy shot while deep in hostile territory, the crew of the tank found themselves in what military experts would call "a crappy situation". In the space of thirty seconds or so the immobilized tank destroyed four enemy tanks, two of which got shots off, hitting the tank but completely bouncing off of its proprietary DU-laced armor. When reinforcements arrived they decided it was too much trouble to lug the tank back, and decided to destroy it on site. The American tanks took turns shooting another 8 or 9 times before the turret was penetrated, detonating the ammo stocks—which had little effect due to the blowout hatches installed. The tank's turret was taken back to the US for analysis while the chassis was refit with another turret and returned to action in a week. That's some serious armor. In another example contained in David Zucchino's book, Thunder Run: The Armored Strike to Capture Baghdad, one of the Abrams was disabled by enemy fire. Forces attempting to destroy it on-site set off thermite grenades in the main hatch, detonating both the explosives and the ammunition stored in the tank. This was followed by the tank receiving a HEAT round from another Abrams, and then an AGM-65 Maverick anti-armor missile, as well as two AGM Hellfire missiles were fired via gunship into the tank. The end result? The interior of the tank was demolished, but its armor and exterior appeared relatively unharmed. This tank's a God-damned "Battlemech".
- The M777 Howitzer entered the public consciousness thanks to its involvement in the 2022 Russian-Ukrainian War. While the M777 by itself is not particularly special for a howitzer, it is very modern with a titanium construction that allows it to be easily airlifted, a digital fire control system for increased precision, as well as the capability to fire a variety of 155mm artillery shells, including special rocket propelled, GPS guided precision shells. This was a major improvement over the older Cold War era Soviet artillery Ukraine started with, and helped close the major artillery gap between it and Russia.
- The M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) is a light mobile rocket launcher which really made a name for itself in the 2022 Russian-Ukrainian War. Armed with long range and highly accurate rockets, HIMARS was a departure from the typical Spam Attack tactics other MLRS vehicles used, preferring to use a few guided rockets to hit specific targets. Once Ukraine was able to deploy the vehicles, the Russian advances quickly ground to a halt as the Ukrainians were able to exploit HIMARS' longe range precision capabilities to destroy strategic targets such as ammo dumps, headquarters, and bridges with Russia being utterly unable to find a suitable counter to them. And this isn't even getting into the fact that the US did not provide the longest range rockets, ATACMS and the Precision Strike Missile, which can hit targets up to 500km away. And this was all from only 20 HIMARS launchers. Their performance was so stellar during the war that foreign demand for the system exploded, with the US looking to produce another 500 launchers over the next few years.
ShipsThe U.S. Navy has grown from the end of the Civil War era from a force composed mostly of a huge amount of monitors (small, heavy river and coastal-defense ships useful for very little on the open sea) to a fast, powerful, and flexible military that can direct massive amounts of firepower.
The two ironclads met only once, at the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 89, 1862, but their meeting changed naval warfare forever. On the 8th, Virginia attacked and ravaged the Union blockading squadron at Hampton Roads, sinking the sloop-of-war USS Cumberland with her ram, setting USS Congress ablaze, and driving USS Minnesota, her former sister ship, aground.
Monitor arrived under cover of night and took up position guarding the grounded Minnesota. In the morning, Virginia waded back out, expecting to easily complete the destruction of Minnesota. Instead, she was engaged in a six-hour running battle with the tiny Monitor, which her guns had a difficult time engaging. Monitor herself, ordered to use half-charges in her guns (the Navy didn't trust the Dahlgren cannon), couldn't generate enough velocity to penetrate Virginia's sloped armor, so the battle ended inconclusively.
The Union, however, encouraged, ran off nearly 100 additional ships on the Monitor platform before the end of the Civil War, and these vessels made up the core of the postwar fleet — despite their slow speed and almost total lack of seaworthiness.
- Civil War Monitors: Generally built on the pattern of USS Monitor, these ships consisted of a single turret on a very low hull, with minimal upper works to get shot up by enemy fire. They were slow (typical top speed was under 12 knots), cumbersome, and unseaworthy, which limited their utility to coastal waters and rivers, but they were extremely powerful for their size and cost, and took their Confederate counterparts (almost all of them Virginia-style broadside ironclads) apart.
- New Navy Monitors: In the late 1870s, the US Navy that had been built during the Civil War mostly languished in reserve, its ships slowly moldering and rusting away. To modernize the fleet, the Navy built a series of six new monitors that were ostensibly repairs of rotting Civil War-era ships. When the ruse was found out, there was an outcry, but the result was the construction of four new ships without the same pretense, and the beginning of the 20th Century US Navy. The New Navy monitors were marginally more useful than the earlier ones, but still not very seaworthy and underpowered by the standards of the battleships that the Royal Navy was putting to sea. The last of them was built in the 1890s, around the end of the Spanish-American War, and all were discarded at the end of World War I.
The fleet was much more impressive on paper than it was in reality; the first dreadnoughts were already being built and tested, whereas every ship in the Great White Fleet was of pre-dreadnought design and four of them (the older Kearsarge-class ships and newer Virginia class) used a turret design that made half of their secondary armament useless. Still, as a demonstration of the USN's logistical ability, it was impressive.
Ships of the Great White Fleet:
- Kearsarge-class battleships USS Kearsargenote and Kentucky
- Illinois-class battleships Illinois and Alabama
- Maine-class battleships USS Maine, Missouri and Ohio
- Virginia-class battleships USS Virginia, New Jersey, Georgia and Rhode Island
- Connecticut-class battleships USS Connecticut, Kansas, Vermont, Louisiana and Minnesota
During the first leg of the fleet, USS Connecticut led the first squadron of the fleet and USS Minnesota led the second; a reorganization of the fleet at San Francisco to bring the newest and finest ships in the fleet up to the first squadron (since those ships would be anchored closer to the shore and be more visible) brought Minnesota into the first squadron, replacing her as second squadron flagship with Louisiana.
Besides Texas, Iowa and the Indianas, the Mississippi-class battleships were also left out of the fleet because they were slow and underpowered next to the rest of the fleet (a brief fashion for reducing the cost of battleships led Congress to approve "second class battleships" that were smaller and slower than the rest of the fleet, something the Navy did not appreciate; the Mississippi-class ships spent only two years in U.S. service and were sold to Greece to finance the construction of a new dreadnought.
AircraftIf you're wondering, aircraft designations are: F for Fighter, A for Attack, B for Bomber, C for Cargo, E for Electronic warfare, H for Helicopter, K for tanKer, M for special Missions, V for VTOL, U for Utility, Q for unmanned drone, and in the case of the WWII planes, P for Pursuit. Before 1962, the US Navy had a separate designation system: One to three function letters, a sequence number indicating which design it was, and a manufacturer letter, followed by a dash and a digit to communicate which variant it was. The Mc Donnell F-4 Phantom II, for example, entered service as the F 4 H-2 (Fourth fighter design by Mc Donnell Aircraft Corporation, second variant). The first design of each manufacturer omitted the sequence number, and somewhat confusingly, the same aircraft built by different manufacturers had a different designation (the Vought Corsair, for example, was built as F 4 U (fourth fighter airplane by the Vought company), F 3 A (third fighter airplane by Brewster Aeronautical Corporation), and FG (First fighter airplane by Goodyear - yes, the rubber company)). Most single-digit numbers under the post-1962 system were taken up by redesignated Naval aircraft, while their Air Force counterparts mostly continued to use the same designations as before, with one significant exception which we will get to.
- The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber was the star of the city-bombing raids the Air Corps executed upon Germany and German-occupied territories (as depicted rather accurately in Memphis Belle), destroying the industries within and transport links through them through the destruction of the cities themselves (blocking the railways and roads with rubble). There they were, hundreds of fat, juicy sitting ducks for the German anti-aircraft crews, not even bothering to try evasive maneuvers (which would throw them off course from their target). But the B-17 had an almost mythic ability to withstand damage and keep flying. Every B-17 crew member had at least one story of returning to base safely without a vertical tail, or with half a wing blown off, or on one engine, etc. etc.
- The B-24 Liberator was the other US heavy bomber of WWII. While not as pretty or famous as the B-17, the B-24 could carry a larger bomb load faster and farther, and was more numerous (with about 6,000 more built). Of course the lighter structure and unusual Davis wing that gave it that performance edge also made it a more fragile aircraft, with far less stories of B-24s coming home with big chunks missing. This seemed to have a deleterious effect on its popularity.
- The B-25 Mitchell was a medium bomber, meaning it could carry smaller loads less far than its heavy counterparts, but could also be built in much greater numbers. It was also very rugged, and more B-25s survive than any other bomber of the era.
- The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt was the largest single-engine fighter of World War II, known as the "Jug" on account of its shape. Gained 3,752 air-to-air kills (3,499 were lost to all causes). Seriously, seriously rugged. One pilot, Robert S. Johnson, sustained serious damage to his aircraft over France on 26 June 1943 — including a fire. Unable to open his canopy, he managed to regain control. He heads for the channel, then gets a German FW-190 fighter (probably ace Egon Mayer, who was killed by another Thunderbolt after reaching 102 kills) arrive and empty his entire machine-gun capacity at the American pilot, who tries to move around a bit, but doesn't really succeed. The aircraft still stays going and the German leaves, saluting him by rocking his wings. Johnson gets back to the UK, lands safely and counts the bullet holes. After getting to 200 without even moving around the aircraft — he gave up. Seriously.
- The North American P-51 Mustang is a fighter aircraft that must be mentioned any time you are talking about anything concerning WWII US aircraft. This beast went from proposal to flying prototype in under four months — a tremendous feat of engineering. The laminar-flow airfoil wing reduced drag and gave it outstanding high altitude performance when married to the high-performance supercharged Rolls Royce Merlin engine, which could get the Mustang up to 437 mph and up to 41,900 ft. It flew like a dream and could fly an escort mission to Berlin and Back, plus a dogfight or two. It was the main aircraft of the Tuskegee Airmen, who used it to great effect; having a red-tailed Mustang escort you meant you were gonna live. Mustangs claimed the highest amount of air-to-air kills by any Allied fighter in WWII (nearly 5,000) and lost about 2,520 of their number — almost a two-to-one kill ratio. Cadillac of the Skies indeed.
- The last Mustang in US military service was decommissioned in the late 1950s. The last Mustang in military service anywhere in the world was retired from the Dominican Air Force in 1984.
- Leave us not forget the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. It was originally meant to be a short-range, heavily armed interceptor — a flying anti-aircraft gun, if you will. Lockheed was initially planning on a limited run of the planes (based on the initial proposal, they expected that they would be constructing a mere 50 Lightnings), but the Air Force was suitably impressed with the performance of the prototype XP- and YP-38s that they saw fit to expand both its role in the war and the number of Lightnings to be constructed. In addition to becoming one of the first truly multi-role fighter planes — while its primary role was escort and interception, it also took part in dive-bombing, level-bombing, ground-attack, and photo-reconnaissance missions — it was also the plane used to "get Yamamoto". The Germans referred to it as the "Forked-tailed Devil".
- The F-86 Sabre The last great hurrah of the machine-gun-armed fighters (subsequent famous gunfighters, such as the F-8 Crusader, used 20mm cannon as their primary weapon), it was produced by North American Aviation (see above re: P-51 Mustang) and proved instrumental in American air superiority during the Korean War. The F-86's weapons load was the same six .50-calibre AN/M2 machine guns used by its predecessor, the P-51. KDA ratios cannot be adequately established as both West and East were prone to misreporting, but what cannot be denied is that the Sabre came out the better against the MiG-15. It is the most-produced American airframe, with almost 10,000 of them manufactured. It was retired from American service in 1965; the final combat-ready Sabres, serving in Bolivia, soldiered on until 1994.
- The second generation of US jet fighter designed was ushered in with the North American F-100; because of the F-100's obvious familial resemblance to its slower predecessor it was called the Super Sabre by its manufacturer (but most frequently referred to as the Hun by its pilots). The Hun ushered in a rapid succession of increasingly technologically-advanced aircraft by many different manufacturers that straddled the second and third generation: The Mc Donnell F-101 Voodoo, Convair F-102 and F-106 delta-winged fighters (officially "Delta Dart" and "Delta Dagger," unofficially the "Deuce" and the "Six"), Lockheed F-104 Starfighter ("Zipper" or "Zip-104," dubbed by its manufacturer the 'Missile with a Man In It'), Republic F-105 Thunderchief ("Thud"), as well as several planes that were proposed but never built in number: The Republic XF-103; North American XF-107 and XF-108; and the Bell XF-109. The last "Century Series" plane was the F-111 Aardvark, a fighter-bomber that could be considered the first fourth-generation aircraft. The next-to-last? We'll get to it in a moment...
- The McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II succeeded the Sabre as the American ruler of the skies. Designed initially as a fighter-bomber, it was reworked as an all-weather long-range interceptor when the A-4 Skyhawk rolled into service. Designed and introduced into the Navy as the F 4 H-1 (fourth fighter design by Mc Donnell Aircraft, first variant). A two-person plane, the back seat was intended for a Radar Intercept Officer. It boasted nine hardpoints for the newly-invented guided missiles, and could attack with them from beyond visual range but — crucially — the plane had no integrated gun. This proved a problem during The Vietnam War, where the plane was often fielded against second-generation MiGs, which could typically outmaneuver the Phantom. Nonetheless, the plane was brutally effective, a Flying Brick relying on engine power and a hastily-added external gun pod to maintain combat superiority. The Jack of All Stats of American aviation, it was deployed by the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines over the skies of Vietnam in just about every mission imaginable. It was even flown by both the Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels. It entered service with several non-American air forces as well, and was finally retired from American service in 1996; highly specialized F-4G variants replaced the F-105 Thunderchief in the suppression of enemy air defenses role, until improved electronics and stores management allowed the "Wild Weasel" package to fit onto "vanilla" fighters. It remains in service with Iran, Japan, South Korea, Greece, and Turkey. It was introduced briefly into the Air Force in 1961 as the F-110A Spectre (making it the penultimate Century Series fighter), but after the unification of designation systems in 1962 the F-110 disappeared, becoming the F-4C.
- The Douglas A-4 Skyhawk led the close-air-support fight in Vietnam. It was so small that its wings did not need to be folded for storage aboard an aircraft carrier. Despite this, it was swift, nimble and could easily get its ordnance on target. This made it an extremely valuable prospect on the export market; the final customer to buy them, Brazil, did so in 2017, and plan to keep using them until 2025. In the meanwhile, the plane served in the Blue Angels (replacing the F-4 — it needed a lot less fuel), as was flown by instructors pretending to be Russians in the TOPGUN flight school — yes, that Top Gun; it's one of 3 planes featured in the film. It finally retired from American service in 2003.
- The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird is not a fighter, though it certainly looks cool enough to be one. It is, instead, a reconnaissance aircraft. While a lot of recon aircraft do their jobs by going very high and then drifting along at slow speed, Hiding in Plain Sight via distance and low engine emissions. The SR-71 does it by going very high and then going Fast as Lightning, to the point that wind friction left it untouchably hot upon landing. For virtually all of its service life, there simply was no missile, air or ground-launched, that could overtake it from behind. Retired in 1998, it is still the holder of several world records, including one it set on its retirement flight by getting from Los Angeles to Washington DC in just over 64 minutes.
This being the military, attempts to rectify this progressed in several different directions at once. The most immediate, cheapest, and arguably most effective was the establishment of the Air Force's "Red Flag" and Navy's "TOPGUN" flight schools, teaching aviators how to defend against aircraft with vastly different flight characteristics. The second was the "Tactical Fighter eXperiment" program, intended to produce a single fighter which could outfly and outfight the Phantom, serving the Navy as a high-altitude interceptor launched from carriers and the Air Force as a low-level attack aircraft launched from runways. Both services had enough brains to realize that any plane capable of doing both missions at once would have to be made of lollipops and pixie dust, and begged to just open a program for individual planes, but McNamara pushed the program through. The resulting aircraft, the F-111 Aardvark, fulfilled the Air Force's requirements well enough but failed to enter service in the Navy on account of being too heavy to land on carrier decks.
This left openings on Navy and Air Force runways for a fighter/interceptor which could shoot down high-altitude Soviet bombers at long ranges (i.e., "win World War III"). To fill them, the Navy and Air Force were finally allowed to open separate programs (VFX at sea, FX on land) for large, powerful air-superiority aircraft, yielding the F-14 Tomcat (Navy) and the F-15 Eagle (USAF). This led to the Lightweight Fighter program. A number of aviators and aircraft designers felt that the Tomcat and Eagle were too large to be agile dogfighters, and that the expensive radar systems made them too expensive to risk in tricky operations. (Nobody cared about the F-111.) In addition, quite a few of the previous generation of "strike fighters" had been lost to attrition in Vietnam (including half of the production-run-of-800 F-105 Thunderchiefs). Long story short, the Air Force wanted something small and cheap to fill their strike squadrons with — something that could be thrown at high-risk targets with impunity, do a bit of light dogfighting on the side, and maybe (due to the lack of high-tech avionics) tear it up on the export market, helping defray the large R&D costs. While originally the LWF program was Air Force only, winning them the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the Navy found the losing plane to their liking, and modified the YF-17 into the F/A-18 Hornet of today.
The original intent was a winged version of Sword and Sorcerer: the big beefy air-superiority fighters (F-14s and F-15s) would sweep the skies while the smaller strike fighters (F-16s and F/A-18s) slid in to pound ground targets and engage in close-range dogfights as necessary. This later became muddled, as micronized avionics made the "little" planes effective air-superiority fighters in their own right, and improved radars and various targeting pods made effective strike fighters out of the big planes. But the end result are four classic American fighters, three of which are still in service today.
- The Grumman F-14 Tomcat, the Navy's version of the air-superiority fighter, was a carrier-based interceptor that was famous for starring in Top Gun. It was retired in 2006 in favor of the Super Hornet. Designed to defend US carrier groups against bomber attack, it acquired an air-to-ground role late in its career, taking on the nickname "Bombcat" as it did so. The fighter's calling card are its "variable geometry" or "swing" wings, which (controlled by onboard computers) move back and forth from almost-straight-sideways to way-swept-back depending on how fast the plane is trying to go. The F-14 project took many of its parts and pieces from the cancelled F-111B, including its engines, missiles, and swing-wing configuration. The plane was in fact built around the ability to fire the F111-B's AIM-54 Phoenix long range air-to-air missile. The US never actually shot anything down with that missile (it was designed for use against Russian bombers), but the sole country to which the F-14 was exported has made use of it. Shortly after delivery, that country had a revolution and is now quite hostile to the United States. That's right, we sold Tomcats to Iran.
Sadly, this fact was partially what motivated the Department of Defense to not only retire the Tomcat but to completely destroy nearly all the retired planes: this way Iran doesn't have access to the parts needed to maintain their own F-14 fleet. Iran has boasted that they've developed their own maintenance programs, and there are rumors that corrupt individuals may be supplying them with smuggled scraps to replace what can't be repaired. In the meanwhile, though, those Iranian F-14s tore it up during the Iran-Iraq war of The '80s. Iran's claims of fifty-ish kills on Iraqi MiGs, to one combat loss, are disputed — American F-14s have scored five aerial victories, total — but it's worth noting that whenever Iraqi pilots saw F-14s during Operation Desert Storm, their unanimous reaction was to turn tail and flee. The F-14 is also notable for being the platform of the most recent Real Life Flying Ace — a pilot who has scored five aerial victories; it was one of those Iranians in the 80s — as well as the most-recent fictional Flying Ace, as Capt. Pete "Maverick" (Tom Cruise) shot down two aircraft in (what must have been) a stolen Iranian bird during Top Gun: Maverick.
- The McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle, the USAF counterpart to the Tomcat, is one of the world's best air superiority fighters: in over thirty years of service, there has been no confirmed note case of an F-15 shot down in air-to-air combat, while its various operators have taken down precisely 101 opposing aircraft with it. (The F-15E Strike Eagle is a different story, but it's not the same kind of bird.) Its detractors call it the "Aluminum Tennis Court" for its size, as well as "the triumph of thrust over aerodynamics". It also has the more dubious honor of being the (original) disguise of Starscream.
- It should also be pointed out that the F-15 is a true Lightning Bruiser. With four AIM120 AMRAAMs, four AIM9 Sidewinders, AND a gun, it packs quite an offensive punch in a dogfight. It has a positive thrust-to-weight ratio, meaning it can fly straight up, allowing it to climb to altitude faster than any aircraft of its day; it still holds several 'time to climb' records. While all of those might make it sound like a Fragile Speedster, don't forget that an F-15B came home without a wing.note The F-15E Strike Eagle takes this even further by adding air-to-ground weapons to the mix, and was often sent out to hunt down and destroy Iraqi SCUD launchers during Desert Storm. During the Cold War, one F-15 was even modified to fire an anti-satellite missile and killed a spy satellite (an aging American one that wasn't working anyway). The reason for this test? With so many Eagles in US service, it was easier to get off a shot at a Soviet satellite when there are dozens of Eagles in the air at any one time, thereby hiding the launch. Good luck doing the same with a ship or land based launcher.
- Shortly after the F-15 reached its 45th year in service, rumors began swirling about a possible upgrade, which had first been proposed in The '90s as an alternative to the even-then outlandishly expensive F-22 Raptor. In 2020 the upgrade was announced: The F-15EX Eagle II, a complete, air superiority-focused refresh of the venerable F-15E Strike Eagle, which for the first time activates the F-15's outboard hardpoints and adds an option for a more complex two-tiered launcher on the already-extant wing rails, raising the F-15's missile payload to a staggering sixteen air to air missiles, all or almost all the highly-potent medium-to-long-range AIM-120 AMRAAM.
- The General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon is the Air Force's version of the light fighter. The first combat aircraft to use true fly-by-wire controls, the "Viper" (as its pilots call it) has been the workhorse of the Air Force since the early '80s (during the first Gulf War, the F-16 was used in more sorties than any other Coalition aircraft), and is scheduled to remain in service until the 2020s. It's so versatile that's its also found homes among many foreign air forces, and — at just shy of 3,000 copies — it is the second-most-populous aircraft in current military service, and the most populous that isn't a helicopter. (See below for which helicopter it is.) It can be configured as an interceptor, an air superiority fighter, a strike aircraft, or a close support aircraft, and does all these jobs well. It is the current vehicle for the Air Force's Thunderbirds. The F-16 was featured heavily in the Iron Eagle series of films, which could be a positive or a negative, depending on what you think of those movies, and stars in the Falcon series of brain-breakingly realistic flight sims.
- A note on Fly-By-Wire: most aircraft are designed with "aerodynamic stability," which means that if you let go of the steering wheel, the plane's shape will cause it to drift back into a straight-line heading. (Cars have a similar feature for safety reasons.) The F-16 on the other hand was deliberately designed with aerodynamic instability; left to its own devices, it will drift out of a straight-line heading. The FBW computer prevents this by making constant minute adjustments to flaps, ailerons and rudder, which keeps the plane going in the (last) direction its pilot told it to. Why all this trouble? Once you tell the F-16 to turn, it's off like a rocket; the F-16 can outfly most competitors (a serious advantage in an Old-School Dogfight) and even its own pilots, who will have passed out from G-forces long before the airframe reaches structural tolerance. In the 21st Century, fly-by-wire is a universal design feature of fighter aircraft, but it was created for the F-16 three decades before they showed up.
- The McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet is the Navy's and Marine Corps' lightweight air superiority/strike aircraft. (Neither it nor the F-16 is really a bomber, per se: a true bomber's job is really about carpet bombing, and these planes can't even carry that many munitions. Instead, they do pinpoint strikes on invididual targets.) Like the Falcon, it has served with distinction since being introduced. Like the Falcon, it is also a true workhorse (and has a very high availability due to the designer making "ease of maintenance" a priority) and is even replacing the F-14 at its own job of air combat. It is the current platform for the Navy's Blue Angels, and was the aircraft of choice for the movie Independence Day.
- The Boeing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, despite the name, is largely a different airframe from the original Hornet, being 20% larger and considerably heavier (Carrier personnel refer to it as the "Rhino" to avoid confusion). It was designed to replace, or "neck down," a number of specialized aircraft carrying out missions the original Hornet couldn't managenote , as well as replace the costly and aging F-14 Tomcat. Currently the top dog among American carrier aircraft, and will be until the F-35C sees widespread use. The Marine Corps have avoided the Super Hornet like the plague, fearing that adoption will cut into funds for the troubled F-35B STOVL variant.
- Of note is a specialized variation of the Super Hornet called the Boeing EA-18G Growler, designed as a replacement for the aging Northrop Grumman EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare planes. Since the retirement of the Air Force's electronic warfare plane the General Dynamics/Grumman EF-111A Raven, the Prowler had been pressed into more frequent service than it was intended to fly, and the logistics of maintaining it became difficult. Thus it was retired in favor of the Growler for its better flight performance and easier logistics since it is based on and shares many parts with the Super Hornet, while adapting the Prowler's electronic warfare package. It is often used to fly cover for advancing ground forces and jam enemy communications, particularly useful during counter-insurgency operations where remote-detonated IEDs are a potential threat.
- The Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor is the world's first combat-ready Fifth Generation fighter, designed during the Cold War in anticipation of newer aircraft being produced by emerging superpowers like Russia and China. The F-22 Raptor is loaded down with the latest aerospace technologies including stealth, thrust vectoring, supercruise (the ability to break the sound barrier without the use of afterburners), as well as the most advanced avionics available. Like the Eagle, the Raptor is designed to be a pure air superiority fighter, and in simulated exercises, it has been shown that a dozen F-22s can shoot down hundreds of aircraft without a single loss. Simulatednote dogfights have also shown that America's current premier air superiority fighter, the F-15, can't even touch the F-22. Currently, the Raptor's only apparent disadvantage is its astronomical building cost, which is approximately $138 million, each. It's claim to fame in media is being featured on the front covers of Ace Combat video games 4 and 7. (5 has the F-14; Zero and 6 feature the F-15.)
- For a long time, there was a lot of debate about whether or not the F-22 was really needed. The whole "asymmetrical warfare" thing, which has gotten very trendy, involves simply bombing enemy aircraft to bits before they can take off. As such, there is very little need for an air-superiority fighter — cf the fact that the most recent non-fictional Flying Ace did it in the 80s, back before the F-22 could even claw its way into the sky. So why are we spending gajillions of dollars on an aircraft that is designed to shoot down other planes, something that basically is never done anymore? Recent information on the F-22's contenders (such as the Russians with Rusting Rockets' Su-57) suggest that they'll cost about as much as the F-22, though; we may be out of money, but at least everyone else will be too. And, like the F-15 before it, the F-22 can adapt to other missions, despite the "not one pound for air-to-ground" philosophy shared by both planes. This question was resolved in in the 2010s and 2020s, when tensions with foreign peer powers like Russia and China have resulted in the hindsight opinion that the premature shutdown of F-22 production was largely a mistake. (Can we restart production? Yes, but it would be even more expensive than before, to the point that designing and building an F-23 might be cheaper.)
- The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, aka the Joint Strike Fighter. A new multirole fighter, co-produced with the UK, and several other nations. It's a return to McNamara's ideal of a single plane serving all branches of the armed forces, and has three different variants: a standard version for the Air Force, a carrier based version for the Navy, and a vertical take off/landing version for the Marine Corps. Like the F-22, it has stealth capability, though not to the Raptor's extent. The USAF intends for the F-35 to fill the "workhorse ground-attack machine" niche the F-16 filled in the Fourth Generation, with the F-22 replacing the F-15 the same way. Though initially billed as a bargain, recent developments suggests that due to delays (including some changes in weapon bay requirements), the plane won't be that much cheaper than the F-22. The estimated initial operating capability date is in the 201617 timeframe. By this time, F-35 unit costs have fallen dramatically, with all three variants expected to fall near or below $100 million a pop once they reach full production.
- Some of the difficulties that have been encountered include: initial tailhook design not performing well, heat delamination from the engines, transonic buffeting, and the operating system for the onboard computer is nowhere near complete. As these have resulted in delays and expensive fixes. It's thought that, before the jet is retired, more than $1 trillion will be sunk into it — though to be fair it's intended to take the roles of multiple aircraft (F-16, F/A-18, AV-8B) simultaneously and still be in service in the 2060s, and Congress hopes to defray part of the costs by selling the F-35 to other countries. Instead of, y'know, having a more centralized industry for it instead of having a few parts built in every State so as to be "fair". That would drive the cost down dramatically.
- And no, we don't know why the number skipped from 23 to 35. Even Lockheed thought it would be the F-24. Most likely because the prototype demonstrator vehicle is named X-35 (normally, X-planes are not prototypes for future operational aircraft; the prototypes normally would have been designated YF-, the Y being a special designator letter for a future aircraft design undergoing pre-service testing), and whoever was in charge of designation just switched the X with F.
- The Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk, also known as the Stealth Fighter despite its ground-attack role (this has happened with several other dedicated American attack aircraft). This was the world's first true stealth aircraft, and was nicknamed "The Wobblin' Goblin" due to how hard it was to fly (another reason it got the F-for-fighter designation: the USAF wanted its Ace Pilots at the controls). During the first Gulf War, only 2.5% of the American aircraft in Iraq were F-117As, yet they struck more than 40% of the strategic targets.
However, the Nighthawk has been retired from US service, as the F-22 and B-2 have surpassed it in capability — unlike those planes, the F-117A can't really defend itself against attacks once discovered, making it a Glass Cannon. When a Serbian commander figured out how to modify their radars to lock onto and shoot one down during the Kosovo Conflict, that sounded the death knell for the Nighthawk. It also couldn't carry much ordnance, having only two bomb bays. Nevertheless, it had one hell of a service record, and it has featured in a lot of media because it's a Cool Plane.
- Despite being officially retired, the planes have not been scrapped. Rather, they have been kept mothballed note in their Nevada hangars. A few have even been spotted flying over the desert in the area. So despite being "retired", the Air Force clearly wants them ready for action.
- The Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II takes the opposite approach of the F-117A, being the Mighty Glacier of aircraft. She's slow and God bless her, she's uglier than an episode of Real Housewives, but boy does she get the job done. More widely known as "Warthog" or "Hog", the A-10 is designed to kill tanks, armored vehicles—and everyone in them. It can carry up to eight tons of bombs or missiles, but its primary weapon is the GAU-8 Avenger Gatling gun. A seven-barreled, 30mm cannon with UNIMAGINABLE amounts of dakkanote ; you do not want to be on the receiving end of it. If you are, your coffin will probably be about the size of a snuff tin. Note that the A-10 was literally designed around the GAU-8, which is roughly the size of a small sports car.
The A-10 is known for being at least as durable as its namesake—it's the closest thing to a flying tank the Air Force has. The A-10 is packed with redundant safety systems; in terms of durability, she well lives up to her namesake, the aforementioned Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. It can fly with one engine, has a mechanical control system in case the hydraulics fail, self-sealing fuel tanks, and the landing gear can be deployed through just a combination of gravity and air resistance. The engines are mounted high to protect them from debris and dust on rough airstrips (a fact that's become a lifesaver considering how often the USAF has deployed A-10s in the Mid-East). The cockpit itself is literally sheathed in a bathtub of pure titanium, meaning that if the plane is trashed, the pilot most likely won't be. Oh, and there are documented incidents of A-10s flying home using all of these failsafes.
- There was an exceptional case a few years ago, where an A-10 was struck by a SAM in the left wing. Most of the wing was completely blown out, and the wreckage went straight into the engine, which then just spat it out the exhaust and kept on going, allowing the plane to return to base safely. Now that is an insanely reliable plane.
That's not all. Despite its abilities, The Air Force never liked it and tried to retire it twice (before both Gulf Wars), but has given up on the notion after being proven twice (during said Gulf Wars) that for some missions, durability and firepower are more important than electronics and speed. Currently, the 170-strong fleet is in the process of being extensively upgraded and is expected to be in service well into the 2030s, some 50 years after entering service (that's like P-51 Mustangs—or perhaps more to the point, P-47 Thunderbolts—being kept in service till the 80s). Some have even proposed converting them to UCAVs (i.e. unmanned drones) after retirement. That is durability.
- They have tried to retire it again recently, but in June 2015 a Senate committee rejected the Air Force's arguments and request chiefly because 1) The USAAF failed to demonstrate that it will result in expense savings 2) The USAAF failed to provide a viable replacement for the tasks accomplished by the A-10 (Neither unmanned drones or the F/A-18 could provide proper Close Air Support (CAS) to ground troops and the F-35 JSF has yet to prove its worth). This was on top of a public campaign to save the A-10, which has earned a solid reputation with both civilians and ground troops.
- The reasons for retiring the A-10 have grown steadily more rational over the years. The Warthog's fabled wing payloads are exceeded by newer fighters and planned attack aircraft. The GAU-8, while formidable against light armor and softer targets, has been ineffective against tanks from most angles almost since it was first built; more importantly, flying low to use it exposes the A-10 to short range AA systems, which have gotten much, much more dangerous, as recent conflicts have delivered sophisticated man-portable systems to even relatively small rebel groups. A-10's fabled toughness serves it well, but other candidates for these missions are fully configured to avoid shots instead of withstanding them by striking from safer altitudes and distances; A-10 can do this as well, but has a huge amount of weight on board that is designed for a more primitive form of war. Features like a titanium bathtub and a 30mm cannon with seven barrels have been rendered obsolete by low-weight, high-accuracy smart bombs that can deal with armored and unarmed threats from a safe distance, with a low risk of collateral damage.
- Players of Call of Duty: Black Ops II will fondly remember this as the Warthog scorestreak. This thing well deserved the point requirement to call it in, as the enemy team will most likely die every pass. Fittingly, it's call sign is "Reaper".
- There was an exceptional case a few years ago, where an A-10 was struck by a SAM in the left wing. Most of the wing was completely blown out, and the wreckage went straight into the engine, which then just spat it out the exhaust and kept on going, allowing the plane to return to base safely. Now that is an insanely reliable plane.
- The Lockheed AC-130H Spectre and AC-130U Spooky are the latest in a line of flying artillery bases. As you might have guessed from the designation, it's basically a C-130 transport with lots and lots of guns. It can carry various combinations of miniguns, 40mm cannon, and 105mm howitzers. These planes are unusual because all that ordnance is mounted perpendicular to the direction of flight, poking out of the left side. The gunship's signature combat move is the orbital pylon turn, circling counter-clockwise around its target while the crew continuously pours fire on it. Players of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare might recall that this was the plane used in the mission "Death From Above."
- The Bell AH-1 Cobra was America's first true attack helicopter. It was introduced during Vietnam and provided vital close air support, assisted ground forces, and secured landing zones. Not quite as cool, or as powerful as its successor the Apache—but it's still one heck of a capable aircraft, and don't break down nearly as much as the AH-64. The US Marines still use them, as well as their descendants the AH-1W SuperCobra and AH-1Z Viper.
- The Boeing AH-64 Apache, as noted above, is the successor to the AH-1 Cobra. It's one of the best in the world. They were so feared in the first Iraq War, that Iraqi soldiers would surrender at the sight of one.
- As a note, due to their specific role, transport (or "utility") helicopters are often used by all branches of the US armed forces.
- The Bell UH-1 Iroquois is the first helicopter used by US armed forces on a large scale. It debuted during the Vietnam War and over 16,000 of them were built, with dozens of variants. No Vietnam War film was complete without a fleet of UH-1s flying around in the background, most notably the "Ride of the Valkyries" scene from Apocalypse Now. As a result, the UH-1 has become a pop culture icon for America's involvement in the war. As a utility helicopter, the UH-1 was capable of doing literally everything from transport, medevac, reconnaissance, and serving as a mobile weapons platform. The UH-1 has never been retired and still sees service today, though in a much diminished role
- The CH-47 Chinook is the bigger, heavier cousin of the UH-1, and served alongside it during the Vietnam War. Originally designed as a troop carrier, the Chinook quickly made a name for itself as a heavy lifter, being able to carry large amounts of heavy equipment and supplies over large distances to remote firebases. Like the UH-1, the Chinook remains in active service today and is primarily used in air assault missions, especially in high altitudes where other helicopters would have trouble reaching. It also maintains its reputation as one of the heaviest lifting helicopters of any Western military.
- The UH-60 Black Hawk is the UH-1's official successor as the US armed force's general transport helicopter. Proven to be one of the most reliable and durable transport helicopters around, there's hardly any depiction of a modern war involving the US military that doesn't have a Black Hawk prominently featured somewhere. Like its predecessor, the Black Hawk has dozens of variants that allow it complete just about any task imaginable. The Black Hawk was made famous by the book (and later film) Black Hawk Down, where two of the namesake helicopters are shot down during the Battle of Mogadishu. It is the most populous military aircraft currently in service, with 3,600 made.
- The CH-53E Super Stallion is the Marine Corps' principal heavy-lift helicopter, and the largest and heaviest helicopter used by any western military. A 30-ton monster with three jet engines powering it, Navy Sailors call it the "Hurricane Maker" due to it's fierce rotor downwash. It can carry more than 50 Marines or 16 tons of cargo over 1,000 miles.
- The V-22 Osprey is America's (and the world's) first operational military tiltrotor aircraft. The Osprey is a hybrid vehicle, using two large propellers on its wings that can be shifted so they can work as either standard airplane engines or helicopter rotors. This allows it to maintain the vertical/short takeoff and landing capabilties of a helicopter, while benefiting from the cargo capacity and speed of a conventional airplane. This aircraft was a direct response to the botched Iran hostage rescue mission, where the limitations of both conventional planes and helicopters caused the mission to fail. Due to being the first aircraft of its kind, the Osprey was met with much controversy over issues like cost and safety, though they were eventually rectified. It now sees use with both the US Marines and Navy, and has so far held a respectable performance record. The Osprey is also now a contender as a replacement for the President's aging Marine One fleet.
- There has been a lot of renewed controversy over the V-22 starting in the late 2000s. Key points include engine wear, stability issues, expense, and a rather nasty prop-wash that led to this embarrassing display in New York http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/05/31/new.york.fleetweek.accident/index.html. It also hasn't helped that the military hasn't been very forthcoming with information, even to their Congress. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xubYGMxhOA&feature=endscreen
The first UAV to be deployed by the military and show their practical use came in 1995 from the GNAT, known as the Predator. From its success, the concept took off and soon all branches of the military and even some civilian sectors wanted UAVs. The use of drones however has been under some controversy for a while. The armed version of the Predator has been noted to be one of the first "robots" used in combat to kill someone and that they are desensitizing warfare into a "video game" since they only see what's going on through monitor, even though PTSD does happen with drone pilots. The lettering for aircraft that are UAVs is Q. They are prepended with the role they intend to fill.
As an aside, UAVs are not fully autonomous. The most autonomy they have is they can take off, land, and fly through a set of way points. Any payloads they have must be operated manually by the UAV operator.
- The General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-1 Predator is the first widely deployed unmanned aircraft and probably the most famous. Deployed by the US Air Force and CIA, it was originally designated the RQ-1 for reconnaissance as its only payload was a sensor ball with high grade optics and radar mapping. It was first deployed in 1995 in the Balkans for recon missions and later in 2001, the USAF wanted to arm the Predator with a Hellfire missile. The reason being was that while the Predator was out on recon, a pilot would report something but by the time some mission was approved and ready, the target of opportunity had long been gone. Thus if they could get a recon plane to strike targets of opportunity the moment the pilot sees them, it would save the military a lot of trouble. The scary thing about the Predator is that it's relatively quiet and very hard to see once in operational altitudes and strikes often come without any warning as the missiles are supersonic. The USAF gave the title of the drones Hunter-Killer. The US Army has an upgraded version, the MQ-1C Grey Eagle.
- The AAI RQ-2 Pioneer is a bit of an odd ball in that it actually was deployed before the MQ-1, during the Gulf War. A smaller UAV, it's operated by the Navy and was their workhorse reconnaissance UAV until 2007 when it was replaced.
- The Northrop-Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk is a larger, longer endurance reconnaissance UAV operated primarily by the Air Force and Navy. It's pretty pricey compared to the Predator, as it employs a turbofan engine instead of a turboprop one. An upgraded version, the MQ-4C, is in development. NASA also uses this UAV for scientific missions.
- The AAI RQ-7 Shadow is a UAV deployed primarily by the US Army and Marines, though foreign militaries also use it. Developed from the RQ-2 Pioneer, it saw action in the Iraqi conflict in 2003 though the desert conditions soon exposed some design issues that needed fixing. The US Army is considering using it along with the MQ-1C to escort attack helicopter teams to act as decoys.
- The Northrup-Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout is a helicopter UAV mostly deployed by the US Navy. Its roles are similar to that of the MQ-1, though as a close support role for situational awareness and supply mule for troops on the ground rather than attacking targets of opportunity or scouting. At the moment it has no armed version, but it can be armed.
- The General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9 Reaper is the next generation model of the MQ-1, designed to carry larger payloads and longer endurance. While the US Air Force is its primary user, US Customs and Border Patrol uses it in lieu ground vehicles and other manned aircraft on the US-Mexico Border. NASA also has a variant for scientific missions. Other nations also use the Reaper, though US export restricts them to only the recon version with no provisions to mount weapons.
- The MMIST CQ-10 Snowgoose is, so far, the only cargo-centric UAV meant for carrying supplies to special forces. It's also a little strange in that it uses a parasail or autogyro for lift.
- The AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven is a small, handheld UAV that also probably has gained some fame in recent modern warfare games. It's major claim to fame is that it's the most widely deployed UAV in the world with over 19,000 built.
- The Honeywell RQ-16 T-Hawk is also another increasingly recognizable UAV, being a tiny drone that uses ducted fan VTOL system for lift. Where it's probably most encountered in fiction is Battlefield3, where it was abused in multiplayer before patches fixed it.
- The Boeing MQ-25 Stingray is one of the newest drones. Unlike other drones on this list, its function is to provide an airborne refueling capability for US Navy aircraft carriers, replacing the long-gone KA-6 Intruders and S-3 Viking aircraft in providing a refueling capacity that doesn't reduce the number of long-range strike aircraft available aboard a carrier. The MQ-25 is expected to deploy for the first time in 2021, after what for modern aircraft is an incredibly short development cycle (contracted in 2016, first flight in 2019).
US military vehicle development and procurement is a frequent source of political contention, as members of Congress (who will often have relevant jobs in their districts, such as their own, riding on the outcome) will argue openly about the necessities of certain platforms and who should build them. A US military budget proposal does not make it out of Congress intact.
The KC-X competition, to provide a replacement for the older examples of the KC-135 Stratotanker air-refueling tanker, is a case in point. The Stratotanker, based on the Boeing 707 airliner, entered service in 1956, and they're already starting to wear out. Replacing them might be a good idea. The original plan to do this, settled on in 2003, involved modified 767s which would enter service in 2006. But investigations discovered corruption was involved, and several people went to prison whilst an aboveboard competition was held. The winner of this competition, anounced in February 2008, was a partnership between Airbus and Northrop Grumman, offering modified Airbus 330-200s. However, a number of US legislators cried foul, possibly because the contract would involve a considerable amount of American dollar going off to foreign economies, never to be seen again. An investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded the competition had been unfair and recommended yet another re-try. The Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, reopened the competition in a fast-track form in July, but canceled it in September because it could not be completed within the remaining months of the George W. Bush Administration. This left the possibility of later KC-135s remaining in service until 2040, at which time they will be nearly 80 years old. Finally, Gates was able to re-open the competition under the aegis of Barack Obama. Despite surprises from Ukrainian manufacturer Antonov and the withdrawal of Northrop-Grumman from the Airbus-Northrop-Grumman consortium, a decision was made in February 2011. Boeing will provide new "KC-46A" tankers, which are... modified 767s. The first was delivered in 2019.
American taxpayer dollars at work, ladies and gentlemen.
Light 'Em Up Like the Fourth of July: American Weapon SystemsLike its vehicles, the United States also produces and exports a large variety of different weapon systems. Sometimes they're imitated or reverse-engineered, too. Notable examples include:
- The M2 Browning machine gun is one of the longest serving weapons in the history of the American armed forces. Originally developed in 1933, the M2's claim to fame was its ability to fire the heavy .50 caliber bullet on full automatic, giving American infantry and vehicles a serious edge in firepower and armor penetration. During WWII, the M2 was the default weapon for all American aircraft, was regularly mounted on most American ground vehicles, and even had a crew served version. It is so widespread and well regarded in the US military, that it has picked up the Affectionate Nickname "Ma Deuce". The M2 has been exported to over a hundred different countries, and is still in service with the US armed forces despite being almost a century old. And it doesn't appear to be going anywhere any time soon.
- The M16 Assault Rifle and its variants remain the basis for the US military's standard issue weapon. The M16 was the first true assault rifle developed for the US Army, intended to replace older guns like the M1 Garand, M1 Carbine, BAR, and M14 Battle Rifle. The M16 was revolutionary in many aspects, such as using a high velocity 5.56mm intermediate round rather than the heavier 7.62mm rifle rounds its predecessors used, having an all steel and polymer construction, and used the brand new direct impingement system. What resulted was a very lightweight weapon that could maintain a high rate of fire with low recoil, while the ammunition could still prove lethal on hits. While the M16 initially had teething problems during its first deployment in the Vietnam War, several improvements and modifications turned it into one of the reliable and effective infantry weapons ever wielded by the United States. The M16 also popularized the use of intermediate caliber rounds, particulary the 5.56mm which has become the NATO standard caliber. Today, the M16 lives on dozens of derivatives, variants, and copies sold to or manufactured in over 80 countries worldwide and has become a symbol of America's military reach.
- The AIM-9 Sidewinder series is a family of short rangednote , IR-guided air-to-air missiles that have been very widely exported (the Soviet K-13A/AA-2 "Atoll" was a copy too, although some consider the usual story of its creation—a Sidewinder getting stuck in a Chinese aircraft—an Urban Legend) and progressively improved since it first saw service in 1953. The latest variant, the AIM-9X, is an entirely new weapon using an improved variant of the familiar AIM-9 airframe, an all-new motor, tail fin/vectored thrust steering, and an imaging infrared tracker that is much harder to spoof than the original.
- The AIM-7 Sparrow series was the first American radar-guided air-to-air missile with "beyond visual range" capabilities. Originally guided entirely by the launching plane's radar, the Vietnam War proved that a missile requiring you to Fail Spot Checks is somewhat unwise. Successive upgrades, including a major upgrade to a semi-active guidance system, turned the missile platform into a serious powerhouse, but it has been phased out in favor of the AIM-120c AMRAAM. The last AIM-7s remain in service with the Air National Guard, where it remains a useful weapon for defensive missions and is less complex and expensive than the AIM-120.
- The AIM-54 Phoenix series was a long ranged, actively radar-guidednote , designed with the express purpose of shooting down Soviet long-range bombers. Originally developed for the scrapped F-111, the F-14 Tomcat was built around a requirement to carry up to six of these missiles. The extreme expense (and weight!) of each missile, the Soviet nuclear doctrine moving towards sub-launched and land-based ballistic missiles, the pending retirement of the F-14, and the AIM-120c more efficiently covering medium-range uses led to the AIM-54 being retired from the US arsenal in 2004 with a total of two missiles fired in combat and zero targets shot down. The only combat use seen by the platform was by Iran during the Iraq-Iran War of the '80s.
- The AIM-120 AMRAAM series (commonly referred to by military writers as the Slammer) is a series of actively radar guided air-to-air medium-range missiles that, much like the Sidewinder, have been exported worldwide. The direct replacement for the Sparrow, the missile has seen limited (but very successful) use in multiple conflicts.
- Despite its name ("AMRAAM" stands for Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile), the latest versions (AIM-120C-7 and AIM-120D) have almost fully rebuilt the range lost when the Phoenix was retired.
- The FIM-92 Stinger is a man-portable shoulder fired air to surface missile that has been in service since 1981. During the Cold War, the United States recognized the threat that Soviet helicopters and ground attack aircraft posed to their ground forces, so the Stinger was developed to allow infantry to defend themselves against aerial attack. The Stinger is a infrared missile, which means it will automatically target any heat sources it detects, which allows soldiers to fire it and take cover to avoid retaliation. The Stinger first made a name for itself during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when the US Government supplied Afghan rebels with Stingers, allowing them to shoot down the Soviet attack helicopters that were previously hunting them down. Due to its role in neutering Soviet air superiority, the Stinger is commonly attributed to being at least party responsible for the Soviet Union's eventual retreat from Afghanistan. Afterwards, the Stinger has been seen or used in various conflict zones around the world.
- The FGM-148 Javelin is an anti-tank missile recently developed in 1996 to allow US soldiers to engage the most modern enemy armor from long range. With an infrared seeker, the Javelin missile is able to detect and lock on to heat sources on its own without additional guidance from the gunner. Once fired, the missile can either fly in a "direct attack" or "top attack" mode. In "direct attack" mode, the missile flies in a flat trajectory like a standard missile. However, in "top attack" mode, the missile flies high in the air so it can arc down to attack its target from above, since almost all armored vehicles have their thinnest armor on the top of the vehicle. This makes the Javelin incredibly effective for its size, as it can take out tanks at ranges only crew served anti-tank weapons are capable of. While it was rather prominently used by American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Javelin became world famous during the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, when the US sent shipments of Javelins to Ukraine to defend its capital of Kyiv. Javelin proved to be one of the weapons that served a pivotal role in breaking the siege around Kyiv, and was revered to the point where people sympathetic to Ukraine spread images of "Saint Javelin"note . At least for Ukraine, the Javelin has become the universal symbol of resistance.
The US Armed Forces in FictionThe United States military have been depicted in a massive amount of fiction, ranging from war movies to comedy to romance to detective dramas. Like with the United States itself, there are two basic depictions, with some room in the middle.
The first type are the heroic 'patriots', willing to fight against the odds to ensure victory for Uncle Sam and freedom, justice, Mom, baseball, and apple pie. These are common for films about, say, The American Revolution or World War II.
The second are as nationalistic imperialists, willing to crush the little guy to ensure profits for Uncle Sam and his corporate cronies, get drugged up, and kill people for fun. Much more common for films about The Vietnam War.
The middle ground is filled with pitiable soldier-victims, who remain sympathetic despite doing (very) bad things. Depictions leaning closer to the second type will instead paint the war as unjust and the leaders as corrupt (no matter which war it was): Rambo: First Blood, all Vietnam films, some modern World War II films ... you get the idea. Often the rank and file are cannon fodder under incompetent officers.
Another common depiction of American forces is that since they are generally considered the most powerful military on Earth, some properties will include the American military solely to have them completely curbstomped to show off how powerful whatever curbstomped them is whether it be superpowered individuals, aliens, kaiju, terrorist superweapons, and anything in between.
Different branches have different stereotypical images in fiction, too:
- The Army is the most "average" branch. If the military force in work is not specified as anything other than military ground troops with rifles (aka infantry), it's likely to be the Army. The Squad, Drill Sergeant Nasty, and the Band of Brothers are likely to be Army enlisted. Army officers can range from complete idiots to compentent leaders.
- The Navy is the most "conservative" branch; where they stick to their own nautical traditions (complete with incomprehensible lingo) and look down with contempt on all others (except the Marines and occasionally the Coast Guard.) Don't think for a second that Air Force pilots are the cool guys flying jets from Aircraft Carriers: those guys are "Naval Aviators". Naval officers are generally seen in an Officer and a Gentleman light: erudite, thoughtful, educated in science and math, interested in strategy and military theory. Enlisted sailors aren't as common in fiction, but are often stereotyped as alcoholics who claims to have a girl in every port who likes to tell Sea Stories.
- The Marine Corps are usually depicted as the most "military" branch, with emphasis on order and discipline. Although they may look like the Army, what separates the Marines from the Army is their use of naval terminology and all Marines (always a capital "M") have a huge degree of pride in their own service and its achievements (all other so-called "armed services" are nothing but worthless maggots). However, there are cases of intelligent retired Marines (there are no such thing as "ex-marines", unless you get a "Dishonorable Discharge"), such as Mac Taylor, Jethro Gibbs and Jack Ryan.
- The Air Force is often falsely depicted as if it only had pilots; in reality, they only make up about 4% of the Air Force's personnel. The rest are mechanics, technicians and other categories of personnel (military and civilian) needed to keep it all running. The Air Force and its service members are often portrayed as Mildly Military (not slackers, but more like police officers and firefighters in attitude) in comparison with the other services, and their facilities are often cleaner and more modern than the others. This somewhat egalitarian approach is true in real life as well, if only because the usual combat dynamics are reversed — the officers are the ones fighting (piloting) on the frontlines and the enlisted are not. This stereotype is not quite true, however, as planes with more than two crew members usually have a number of enlisted operators aboard (two-crew aircraft, such as fighters and the B-2 bomber, have two officers, usually a pilot and a weapon systems officer).
- The Coast Guard doesn't get featured all that much; not entirely surprising given that they are the smallest of the service branches. When they are portrayed in fiction, it's sometimes as a "hybrid military/police/rescue service", either catching criminals on the high seas, assisting the Navy; but they're most likely to appear in works when they're doing search and rescue work, especially the sort that involves dangling on a cable from an orange and white helicopter.
- The National Guard has traditionally been depicted in fiction as weekend warriors who are called in to assist in various civil emergencies. In the last decade, due to the overseas conflicts in the Middle East, they have been portrayed as brave citizen soldiers filling in for the overstretched regular Army.
- Special Operations units will usually be depicted as a separate breed compared to everyone else. They're either depicted as badasses, or they are handed a red shirt to demonstrate just how deadly the villain is.
- Since the Space Force was only established in 2019, it's too new to have any significant appearances in fiction.
Culture of the American MilitaryAll armed forces have their own subcultures, it's just that the US military's is very well-recorded. American aircraft nose-art is a well-known subject, especially of the Pin Up variety.
There is a massive amount of US military slang (including a worrying number of terms on the subject of self-pleasuring), some of which has entered non-military use. "Boomer", for example, is the US slang term for a ballistic missile submarine (because it fires things that go "boom"), which is used in the Atomic Hate category.
Also, while many other militaries have traditional marching songs, the US military sings while it runs, too. No one is sure exactly where or when it started, but "Jody calls" were introduced to the US military when it was fully racially integrated, just after the Korean War, and some sources suggest it may go back further than that. Black noncoms taught running songs based on the traditional call-and-response black Gospel songs of the Deep South to white recruits, and it proved so popular that they've been doing it for almost sixty years now. "Jody calls" are as a rule often not especially politically correct; critics note that many consist largely of bloodthirsty boasting, but then again, if anyone's entitled to sing about how tough they are, it's them. Some US police academies have also adopted the tradition. One incidental aspect of Jody calls is in using breath to both run and sing, further increasing the work done in aerobic exercise.
Singing also applies not just to "Jody Calls," but to the fighter pilot community as well—especially among those in the Air Force. Most of these are bawdy drinking songs, though there are exceptions, and many are Vietnam War vintage or older—but the USAF fighter pilot duo Dos Gringos has been trying to revive the tradition of fighter pilot songs by writing new ones, and they've become fairly popular among the branches.
Another tradition shared amongst the services is the Challenge Coin, tracing back to an occasion in the First World War where a downed American pilot was able to prove to friendly troops that he wasn't a spy only by presenting a bronze medallion with his squadron's insignia on it (his identification had been taken by German troops before he was able to escape after a brief capture). According to deprecated tradition, If challenged via a "Coin Check" (typically by someone pulling out their coin and slamming it down on the table or bar), anybody who does not have their coins has to buy everybody else a beer. If you pull a coin check and everybody has their coin, you owe THEM a beer. That said, no one actually does this anymore, and anyone who did would likely witness everyone in the vicinity laughing their asses off at them. Nowadays, they're little more than keepsakes and mementos.
There are specific but very noteworthy pieces of culture within the services, too. For example, from 1989 to 2004, the F-14 Tomcat squadrons in the Navy Air Corps released an annual Fighter Fling, a sort of yearbook turned into one long Fan Vid celebrating all the Tomcat squadrons by setting clips of them being badass or Bunny-Eared to whatever music was popular at the time. Some of these videos show up on YouTube occasionally, but as is the case with modern anime/movie/video game-based Fan Vids, they are often taken down thanks to DMCA (due to the musicthe visual elements are public domain from their creation as U.S. government works).
Interservice Rivalry is another major aspect of American military culture—there are countless jokes putting one branch on a pedestal at the expense of another (or all of them). A number of the stereotypes people outside the military have of specific branches are also shared by other branches. For example, the Navy's air corps pilots refer to themselves as Aviators, and look down their nose at the Air Force's mere pilots — one claim being that USAF pilots lack the skill to land on a carrier. Meanwhile, the "dumb jarhead" stereotype that other branches have of the Marines probably originated from World War II; the Marines were the only branch that would accept recruits who couldn't read or write. Given that the Marines are the smallest branch of service, however, and the one with the most colorful reputation, they've often been the only branch that routinely meets its recruiting goals, and has the luxury of being particularly selective in the era of the all-volunteer military.
The Army traces its roots to the colonial militia. Solders are professional and dedicated to their job. Those who aren't get "UCMJ" (read: punishment). Like the Air Force, "Big Army" has Fun with Acronyms. It has is own slang and vocabulary. A character who was in the Army will say things like "Roger" or "Hooah!" The proper way to end a radio transmission for good is "out" not "over and out" (and never say repeat). Many a NCO will chew you out about that. As the younger sibling, the Air Force took many terms and ranks, but they have a more relaxed "Corporate" culture as opposed to the Army. The Army does make jokes about the "Chair-force" and needing to use pictures and small words to talk to the "jarheads".
As part of the Naval service and a sister branch of the Navy, Marines use naval terminology, even ashore (e.g.: "the head" (restroom), "port" (left side of something), "starboard" (right side), "the deck" (the floor), "hatches" (doors), "bulkheads" (walls), "aboard" (a base or other installation), "aye-aye" (in response to an order or command), "the fleet" (the Marine Corps' operating forces)). They probably use it even more rigorously than do sailors, which can be disconcerting and confusing to casual observers. Whether current or former, Marines take their job very, very seriously—not for nothing is the motto of the Marine Corps "Semper Fidelis," "Always Faithful" (spoken "Semper Fi", to rhyme with "temper pie"). Running afoul of the American military is bad no matter what, but if you run afoul of the Marines, then God help you. Many are fond of Rudyard Kipling.
The interservice rivalries have come a long way since the trouble times of World War Two, and these days they tend to melt away in real combat situations — often turning into grudging or earnest respect. (Usually.) Opposition to interservice rivalry and a unified, joint chain of command has been written into US law since the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, which was borne out of the egregiously avoidable losses and failures caused by interservice rivalry in the Vietnam war. Since then their military has pushed their personnel to emulate the (now-former) Soviet Army and Bundeswehr in "thinking purple" (as in, blend all the uniform colors together) and work together across service lines. Officers are expected to serve at least one joint tour to learn to work with other branches of service if they want to remain competitive for promotions.
While the image of the "dumb grunt" persists, the reality is that the US military has, in fact, valued education rather highly ever since World War Two. Many recruits sign up in part to get money to pay for higher education through the GI Bill, as well as receive practical training in specialized skills. And as one ascends the ranks, the level of formal education goes up — many NCOs are college educated, all officers are — the US only commissions college graduates, and graduate education is pretty much a requirement to make flag rank. (The Armed Forces conveniently run a number of graduate-level institutions, many of which are highly-respected in some field or other; for instance, the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks is well-known to be a good research center for security studies and international relations.) It should definitely be mentioned that the US military is one of the only employers in America, as well as being the largest and the only public employer, that can use frank intelligence and mental aptitude tests without fear of being sued for discrimination (the military is exempt from those provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act).
Ranks in the US Armed ForcesThis topic is a mess, partially because the Navy and Coast Guard uses one set of ranks (the ones from Star Trek) and the Army, Air Force and USMC use another. Even better, both sets of ranks have "Captain" in them... but at different points on the ladder; a Navy Captain is an officer of some repute, but a Captain from another service is barely a third of the way up the climb to the top officer grade. Fictional examples of this sort of Jurisdiction Friction include Halo and Wing Commander, which we'll now use to explicate:
- Does a Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy outrank a Sergeant Major in the Marines? Answer
- Does a Colonel from the Space Forces outrank a Naval Captain? Answer
- Does a Master Chief outrank a Lieutenant? Answer
As you can see, it's an enormous tangle, with rank, service and experience all getting involved. Fortunately, there's the Common Ranks page on this wiki and a List of United States uniformed-services pay grades on The Other Wiki, which lists comparative ranks across many services, to help us keep things straightened out. The thing we're going to spend time on is the issue of "Generals" (Army, Marines and Air Force) and "Admirals" (Navy and Coast Guard). There are five ranks of General/Admiral, indicated by the number of stars on your uniform:
- Brigadier General / Rear Admiral lower half (one star)
- Major General / Rear Admiral upper half (two stars)Aside
- Lieutenant General / Vice Admiral (three stars)
- General / Admiral (four stars)
- General of the Army (or Air Force) / Fleet Admiral (five stars)—wartime only, used basically to clarify org charts when fighting wars alongside allies that have Field Marshals. For further reference, the last person to hold this rank was Omar Bradley, who retired in 1953. The last Fleet Admiral was FADM Chester Nimitz, during World War II. Both got pieces of military tech named after them. The only General of the Air Force was Henry "Hap" Arnold, who received the rank retroactively when the Army Air Forces became the US Air Force in 1947 (he retired from the USAAF as a General of the Army in 1946).
- General of the Armies / Admiral of the Navy (hypothetically six stars): While never formally defined as higher than a five star general rank, George Washington was raised to that rank posthumously (in life his highest military rank was Lieutenant General, as the Army of the time didn't have enough men under arms to merit a full General in command) and John J. Pershing held this rank as well until his death in 1948. Whether Pershing actually outranked the five-star officers of World War II or merely had seniority over them (he was appointed to General of the Armies in 1919, while the rank of General of the Army didn't exist until 1944) was discussed at the time, but Congress was never interested enough to pass any law resolving the question. While hypothetically a six-star rank, the only insignia that ever existed was four-star: when the rank was created, Pershing was allowed to create his own insignia and chose a standard General's four stars, except in gold instead of the usual silver. Proposals were twice made (once when planning to invade Japan, prior to the atomic bombs making this redundant; once in the 1950s) to promote Douglas MacArthur to General of the Armies, both of which would've formalized it as a six-star rank, but neither of these went anywhere. No six-star insignia was ever officially designed, but the most common speculation is that it would've consisted of the same circle of five stars used for General of the Army with a sixth star in the middle of the circle. It is worth noting that, by law, nobody in the US Armed Forces can outrank George Washington. EVER.
- The equivalent naval rank of Admiral of the Navy was only granted once, to George Dewey in 1899.note This was initially considered a four-star rank that was simply a fancier version of a regular Admiral, but just after Dewey's death in 1913 it was official elevated to five-star (expansion of the Navy meant more admirals and it was anticipated that the rank might be awarded again). When it was decided in 1944 that five-star admirals were needed, the name Fleet Admiral was instead used and this raised the prospect that Admiral of the Navy was a six-star rank. While this was considered quite irrelevant at the time (while General of the Army and General of the Armies existed simultaneously for four years, there had never been a Fleet Admiral and Admiral of the Navy at the same time), the prospect of General MacArthur being promoted to a six-star rank left the Navy feeling that they would need to promote one of their Fleet Admirals to a six-star Admiral of the Navy since it would hardly do to have their highest-ranking officer outranked by an Armmy officer, and they even drew up a proposed shoulder board insignia for the rank (consisting of a gold version of the Fleet Admiral's five stars superimposed on top of a very large single silver star, and instead of the single anchor of other admiral ranks there would be an eagle carrying a shield with two crossed anchors). No sleeve insignia was ever designed, though given the very simple nature of Navy sleeve insignia makes it quite easy to figure out that it would've been a single large gold stripe with five smaller stripes and a gold star above it.
However, in the US, everyone with a star is called General or, in the Navy, Admiral.note This is why Major General George Hammond from Stargate SG-1 and Rear Admiral A.J. Chegwidden from JAG are just called General Hammond or Admiral Chegwidden.
This also applies to some other ranks, thus (Lieutenant) Colonel John Sheppard in Stargate Atlantis and (Lieutenant) Colonel Sarah Mackenzie in JAG. The emblem of full Colonels is an eagle, hence the "bird." A Lieutenant Colonel is a "half-bird," or "light" colonel.
In the Navy and Coast Guard, a Captain is the equivalent of an Army/Air Force/Marine Corps Colonel. They're often referred to as a "full-bird Captain", as well, to distinguish them from Army/Marine/Air Force Captains. Navy Captains who visit Army or Air Force bases are used to being addressed as "Colonel", usually by very junior enlisted personnel who see the Eagle denoting their rank and simply don't have the experience to know the difference. This is also due to the fact that the commanding officer of a ship or installation is always addressed as "Captain," even if their actual rank is something else. (In the novel Starship Troopers, a Mobile Infantry Captain is addressed by Naval personnel using the courtesy title of "Major" to avoid addressing him by "the title reserved for the one and only monarch." The MIs themselves regard this as somewhat silly, and only do it when they're "forward of [bulkhead] fifty" ... i.e. in the Navy part of the ship, as opposed to the aft section where the MIs are quartered.) Like in the Army, similar ranks tend to be conflated: USN/USCG Lieutenant Commanders and Commanders are both generally addressed as "Commander," and both Lieutenants junior grade and full-on Lieutenants are called "Lieutenant."
And we pronounce Lieutenant without an "f" in the middle, thank you very much.
Oh, and everything listed above? That was mostly just describing Commissioned Officer ranks. Each branch has an entirely different rank system for their enlisted troops, which only sometimes lines up in intuitive ways, with similar or identically named ranks being at different levels (for instance, an Army or Marine Staff Sergeant outranks an Air Force Staff Sergeant, being one paygrade higher. An Airman First Class and a Private First Class both outrank a Marine Private First Class, the latter being one paygrade lower than the other two. While an Army or Marine Corporal are both at the same paygrade as a Senior Airman or a Specialist Four in the Space Force, they both outrank the Senior Airman and Spc4 because the Corporals are NCOs while the Senior Airman and Spc4 are still considered junior-enlisted (unlike all other branches, the Air Force and Space Force do not have an NCO grade at the fourth-lowest level, although Senior Airmen and Spc4s often carry out similar supervisory duties as Corporals would).
The US military shares one tradition with the UK military and many others descended from the British model that isn't much spoken of: it is the non-commissioned officers who get everything done. The noncoms—sergeants and, in the Navy, petty officers—are better trained and more professional than many other nations' commissioned officers.
Both Marine staff non-commissioned officers and Navy Chief Petty Officers are always referred to by their specific rank (e.g.: always "Staff Sergeant," or "Master" Chief and never just "Sergeant" or "Chief"). In the Army, the proper address is "Sergeant" regardless of specific rank (except in certain training environments). In the Air Force and Space Force, either "Sergeant" or the specific rank is acceptable. No NCO is ever, EVER called "Sarge", though a Gunnery Sergeant, Master Sergeant or First Sergeant may respectively be "Gunny" or "Top" by their own if they permit that.
Senior and experienced non-commissioned officers and master chief petty officers in all branches of the military may take a "First Sergeant" or "command master chief" professional track as they are promoted to certain grades or are placed in the appropriate billet. Such NCOs are act as "senior enlisted advisers" within units to act as a link between the commanding officer and the enlisted personnel. In the Army, E-8s and E-9s serving in such roles are respectively "First Sergeants" and "Command Sergeants Major". In the Air Force and Space Force, "First Sergeant" is not a rank, but instead a special duty that can be held by any NCO at Master Sergeant (E-7) level or above; most units in fact fill that position with an E-7, though larger units may have an E-8 or even E-9 as First Sergeant. Navy Master Chiefs become "Command Master Chiefs". The Marine Corps uses completely separate parallel tracks by which Gunnery Sergeants elect a choice on their regular fitness reports to be promoted either to First Sergeant, and thereafter Sergeant Major, or to Master Sergeant and then Master Gunnery Sergeant, and the Marines do not allow lateral move between these parallel ranks. Each branch of the service also has a specific billet and rank for the seniormost enlisted member of each service, known in military parlance as a "senior enlisted advisor" or SEA, who is meant to act as a representative for all enlisted members and as the senior enlisted adviser to the service's chief. These are respectively the Sergeant Major of the Army, the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, and the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps. The Coast Guard, National Guard, and Space Force also have SEAs, respectively the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, Senior Enlisted Advisor for the National Guard Bureau, and Chief Master Sergeant of the Space Force. Finally, the highest-ranking enlisted member in the entire armed forces is the Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman (SEAC), who is appointed by and reports to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Henote serves for a four-year term, meant to coincide with that of the Chairman. That said, the SEAC earns the same salary as all other SEAs.
The Navy, having its own set of ranks, often doesn't even use them when addressing each other, instead using titles referring to their jobs. The Communications Officer may be an Ensign, but on a ship you call her Commo. Likewise, a Fire Control Technician who is a Petty Officer Third Class, for instance, would often be addressed as a Fire Control Technician Third Class, usually abbreviated as FC3. This is probably because if something breaks on a ship at sea, you're more concerned with whether someone can fix it than with who they outrank.
And as far as the whole "Captain" thing goes, ironically it's the ground rank that got there first. The first navies were more or less formed by the King snapping up whatever was floating in dock at the moment, and putting soldiers on them. Since a single ship supported around a company of men, and the commander of a company since time immemorial has been a "Captain", there we go. The original nautical rank in civilian shipping was "Master", which in the US Navy made its way down the ranks until being replaced around the time of the Civil War with "Lieutenant Junior Grade".
Every branch of service except the Air Force (and, as of 2022, Space Force, since it was mainly staffed from the USAF) also has Warrant Officers, who are former highly-experienced senior enlisted personnel who are promoted to a grade of officers below commissioned officers but above enlisted personnel. Warrant officers are usually experts in particular technical or other specialized fields and the ranks exist so the military can hang on to their expertise and keep them in a particular billet while continuing to promote them. In the Navy and Marines, Warrant Officers are often referred to as "Gunners" (though, technically, in the Marines, this is only supposed to apply to Infantry Weapons Officers).
Oh, and there's one instance where a soldier pretty much is always referred to by position instead of rank, except amongst themselves: a combat medic is almost always referred to as "medic", "doc" or "corpsman", depending on the component he belongs to. This is both a sign of respect and a case of pragmatism: it's easier to yell "MEDIC!!" or "CORPSMAN!!" than "SERGEANT SO-AND-SO!!" And woe to you if you disrespect a medic: medics often joke that they have two ranks, the one on their uniform and the medical one, and that medical rank they can pull on EVERYBODY. EVERYBODY. When a casualty or medical situation is involved, a medic's orders will always take precedence. Even high-ranking officers will be told to step aside to let a medic do his job. The medical branches of the United States armed forces also see much heavier and intimate interaction between its non-coms and officers, so disrespecting a medic even of Private rank can win you an ass-chewing from a Major or Lieutenant Colonel.
"War is the Continuation of Policy by Other Means"note : The Chain of Command and the Military's Relationship to the Government
The President of the United States is the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces under the Constitution, placing him at the top of the chain of command of all military forces in federal service note . Under the Constitution, all commissioned officers in the United States military are officially appointed by the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate, and serve indefinitely at the pleasure of the President, though in practice, except at the seniormost levels or when politics are in play, the President, the civilian Secretaries and the Senate typically act to ratify the recommendations of military officers with regards to promotions and appointments of their juniors. The President holds the largest share of responsibility for and authority over military and foreign affairs, but by practical necessity dating back to the 19th century; only the really important issues involve the President in person, less important matters are decided by duly authorized inferiors. Others may be held back in order to create Plausible Deniability. The President is directly assisted in the White House in military and foreign affairs issues by the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs (aka the National Security Advisor), a very senior White House aide who runs the National Security staff (composed of a mix of Foreign Service, military, intelligence personnel and political appointees). The National Security Advisor is usually a highly influential person in terms of policy formulation, and follow-up of presidential policy. The National Security Council (acronym: NSC) is basically a cabinet council made up of the President, Vice President, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence participating as statutory advisers and also attended by others invited by the President. (The National Security Advisor is a de facto standing participant, but the position is nowhere mentioned in the law that created the NSC.) Unlike the Secretary of Defense (see further below) the National Security Advisor is merely a presidential aide (not an "Officer of the United States" appointed with the advice and consent of the Senate) and cannot issue orders to the armed forces on his/her own. Some White House Chiefs of Staff (another senior presidential aide nowhere mentioned in law) take little interest in the national security arena focusing on solely the domestic agenda, while others does it differently, i.e. essentially taking part of everything the President does and acting as the ultimate gatekeeper to the Oval Office.
The Secretary of Defense (acronym: SecDef: often called the "Defense Secretary", or simply "The Secretary" when its clear which secretary is meant) is the second most important official for the armed forces after the President. The Secretary of Defense is a member of the Cabinet and the National Security Council and is the head note of the Department of Defense (DoD, compromising all the branches except the Coast Guard) which is the largest agency in the federal government. The Secretary, who is usually a seasoned Washington insider, must by law be a civiliannote , and must also be confirmed by the Senate. Other than the President, he note is the only civilian who has default legal authority to issue operational orders to the military. While the President as Commander in Chief typically decides on which conflicts to participate in and overall mission objectives, its up to the Secretary of Defense to decide on the actual implementation, such as which forces to put in, lines of authority, strategy, rules of engagement etc. The Secretary of Defense is easily one of the most difficult jobs in Washington and the incumbent must by necessity delegate much of his responsibilities other than core functions to subordinatesnote . There is a Deputy Secretary of Defense (acronym:DepSecDef), the second highest civilian banana in DoD who deals with the internal management (read: budget and other red tape) of the department and is usually less publicly visible than his boss.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (acronym: CJCS) is the third most important official, and the officeholder is the highest ranked commissioned officer in the armed forces. While he note doesn't have the vast legal powers like his immediate superior, the Secretary of Defense; the officeholder usually has lots on informal influence in military matters on the President, the Congress and the public. Some would say it's all because of the uniform. While the Chairman is forbidden by law from independently exercising command over the Armed Forces as a whole, he is allowed to assist the President and the Secretary of Defense in their command responsibilities. While the Chairman is technically appointed by the President, it's practically always the Secretary of Defenses recommended choice who gets appointed (following Senate confirmation.) Since 1987, there is also a Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (acronym: VCJCS); and much like the Deputy Secretary of Defense he is usually less publicly visible than the immediate boss. For the Joint Chiefs of Staff itself see further below.
The Department of Defense (Army, Navy, Marines & Air Force) has a "Unified Combat Command" structure by which the operational chain of command flows from the President as Commander in Chief, through the Secretary of Defense as second-in-command, directly to the Combatant Commanders, who are typically four-star generals or admirals with command over all military forces assigned to a particular geographical area, irrespective of branch of service (e.g.: United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM), responsible for North America; or Central Command (USCENTCOM), responsible for the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia;) or for a special function (e.g.: Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), responsible for all special operations forces; or Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), responsible for America's nukes and space systems).
Each individual service has its own civilian service secretary; the Secretary of the Army, the Secretary of the Navy (responsible for both Navy & Marines), and the Secretary of the Air Force (also responsible for the Space Force); and the military service chief; the Chief of Staff of the Army, the Chief of Naval Operations, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps. The service secretaries are political appointments and they are subordinate to the Secretary of Defense. The service chiefs are typically the highest ranking officers in each of those branches of service, but who are not in direct command of operating forces while serving in those billets.note Their job is to act as deputies to their service secretary in the administration and management of their organization.
Collectively, the service chiefs, along with a Chairman and Vice Chairman (from any of the four DOD branches) and the Chief of the National Guard Bureaunote make up the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who are senior military advisers.note to the President, Secretary of Defense, and National Security Councilnote While it's generally prudent for any President and Secretary of Defense to seriously take into consideration what the JCS recommends, they don't have to act on their advice at all, because it's ultimately the civilians who are in charge.
What about Congress? Well what about 'em?
Congress' role is in practice (but not in theory) largely limited to providing for funding for the military; which includes authorizations for forming specific units, establishing bases, creating specific officer billets, and approving particular weapon systems; and issuing formal declarations of war or authorizations for military force, though Congress also has the exclusive power to make rules and regulations governing the Armed Forces, such as the Uniform Code of Military Justice (the body of military criminal law), as well as the Senate's power to ratify (or to refuse to ratify) treaties and international agreements negotiated by the President. Congress has formally declared war only five times in history, the last time in 1942, but has authorized or funded numerous other military engagements. On at least 125 separate occasions, the President has ordered military action without approval from Congress. Following the withdrawal of US combat troops from Vietnam in 1973, Congress passed over a Presidential veto the War Powers Resolution, which requires the President to inform Congress within 48 hours of committing the military to armed conflict, and forbids the military from remaining in action for more than 90 days absent an authorization from Congress. Though generally adhered to, the constitutionality of the War Powers Resolution has never been tested, and every President since its passage has maintained that the Resolution is an unconstitutional encroachment on the President's powers as Commander-in-Chief.note
The Posse Comitatus and Insurrection Acts: The US Military at HomeUnlike some other countries, the United States has implemented laws to prohibit the deployment of federal troops within the United States itself. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, implemented in the aftermath of the American Civil War, specifically prohibits local and state governments from using US Army and US Air Force personnel to enforce domestic laws, which is a duty reserved for civilian law enforcement agencies. The US Navy and Marine Corps, while not specifically mentioned in the Posse Comitatus Act, are also subject to the law due to a directive issued by the Secretary of Defense. The only branches of military exempt from this law are the National Guard and the Coast Guard. More on this later.
In conjunction with the Posse Comitatus Act is the Insurrection Act of 1807, which gives the President the power to use state militias and the armed forces in order to put down insurrections and domestic violence. However, the President may only take action if the state's legislature or governor requests federal assistance, or if it is clear the state in question cannot uphold its own laws or the laws set forth in the Constitution. The Insurrection Act was intended as a check on the President's power to prevent him from being able to deploy military forces domestically at will.
Contrary to popular belief, Posse Comitatus is not a blanket ban on domestic military deployment. By the wording of law, forces may be deployed domestically under the authority of the President or Congress. The Insurrection Act itself, being an "Act of Congress", is exempt from Posse Comitatus. However, this is a power rarely executed due to the negative political connotations. However, there are many other exceptions. For example, both the National Guard and Coast Guard are specifically exempt. The National Guard is under each individual governor's command, and therefore can be mobilized to counter domestic threats within their own state. The Coast Guard has always been considered a law enforcement agency, and retains its powers to enforce domestic laws in US waters.
Also contrary to popular belief, the Posse Comitatus Act was never intended as a civil rights protection. Its origin was in fact quite the opposite; it was meant to put an end to the use of the US Army to protect the civil rights of freed slaves.
However, this does not mean domestic deployment of federal troops is impossible. Under the Insurrection Act, troops may be deployed if the President declares martial law. In most cases, troops can be deployed domestically due to Loophole Abuse. Posse Comitatus prohibits federal troops from enforcing the law, but there is nothing that prohibits them from supporting local law enforcement agencies. For example, US Navy ships are legally allowed to search, track, and stop ships they consider suspicious. However, only civilian law enforcement or Coast Guard personnel can actually board the ship, seize it, and arrest any criminals on board, which is why many Navy ships carry a small contingent of Coast Guard officers. Federal troops can also be attached to law enforcement units for training purposes, as long as they are not directly involved law enforcement activities. For example, US Marines were allowed to man sobriety checkpoints alongside deputies from the San Bernardino Sheriff's Department to observe sobriety enforcement tactics and techniques for use on Marine bases.
In terms of fiction, while many writers are aware that the military (other than non-federalized National Guard units or the Coast Guard) should only be deployed to respond to only the most extreme emergencies within the Continental United States; the biggest mistake shown in this regard is military forces intervening on their own initiative to a domestic emergency outside of a military facility. Unless there are approved procedures in place for the situation at hand, it would take a decision made by either the President or the Secretary of Defense to send in federal troops, and only under strict conditions limited by federal law. In many works of fiction where an individual military officer acts upon his own initiative, he realistically would be arrested and punished for violating the Posse Comitatus Act afterwards instead of getting a medal. Special forces soldiers acting domestically can be justified as being on a top secret mission.note
Oversexed, Overfed, Overpaid and Over Here: The US Military AbroadThe US armed forces have bases in quite a few foreign countries and have turned up in many others. This allows them to be used as plot devices in foreign Crime and Punishment Series.
The most notable case was World War II. Compared to the situation in other countries, there wasn't a tremendous amount of rationing in the US during the war, meaning that your average GI would have access to stuff like tobacco, chocolate and nylon stockings, and was (despite perennial complaints about the food) far better fed than his starving Chinese, Japanese, and German counterparts. The women of Britain and liberated Europe were rather grateful for this (mostly having only seen Americans on the silver screen), so some gave them what they had to offer. As a result, quite a few US soldiers stayed in Europe permanently (and even more European women came to America as war brides). That the Cold War was going on didn't hurt, as a US military presence in Europe continued for a long time after the end of the war (and still goes on today).
Having bases around the world also helps the US strengthen one of its key advantages, unmatched deployability. This means that the United States has numerous staging points to mass their forces, resupply, defend allies, provide humanitarian aid, and provide deterrent. For example, Marine bases established in Japan at the end of World War II were key to supporting the UN forces in the Korean War, while US bases in Turkey and other Middle Eastern allies were key in winning both Iraq wars. The bases also have their own set of problems associated with them. Okinawa island to the south of Japan is a case in point. The deterrent factor has faded with the end of the Cold War — "they can't attack you without hitting us too, and they don't dare attack us" loses a certain essential something when there is no longer a Them to worry about. Seoul is an exception; its primary purpose is to assure the North Koreans that an attack on the South would necessarily kill American soldiers, and the American military will not let that sort of thing slide.
Also, note African American servicemen went to Europe in both World Wars. Many of them found European cultures less racist—or at least less institutionally racist—than the US, and contrived to miss the boat home.note The rise of the Paris jazz scene between the wars is just one of the results.
What has the American military ever done for us?Back when the world was far less economically developed and devastated by war, by some measures the US actually accounted for as much as a third of world GDP in 1945. The sheer size of their economy and higher-than-average investment in military spending means they've continually out-researched everyone with regards to everything even vaguely military-ish for the better part of seven decades now. Their spending habits are reflected in all the wacky and experimental things which might not otherwise have been mass-produced for many years — if not decades! — if it weren't for them and The Soviets, who mostly gave them a nice continual incentive to spend just that bit more (i.e. twice as much) than they might have otherwise.
- The very existence of this Wiki was made possible via their Department of Defense wanting linking up their gigantic research computers to each other through some sort of 'data network' — so they would mean they wouldn't have to keep lugging around (gigantic!) physical memory devices all the time whenever they wanted to swap data. Incidentally, it also protected the flow of information between military installations from attacks (up to and including nuclear weapons that didn't physically destroy them). This is what became the Internet. (The World Wide Web and the hypertext system, while still vital, was a civilian thing)
- Your sat-nav, whether it's a standalone unit or incorporated into a smartphone. NAVSTAR GPS, developed for the US military and made available for public use after the KAL 007 shoot-down.
- Supersonic flight—first verifiably done by the US Air Forcenote , if only so the Red Air Force didn't do it first. Admittedly this one has no direct practical civilian applications since the shut-down of Concorde (obviously many military planes around the world are still supersonic, and the indirect effects of the Air Force research helped with both space research—for which see below—and with designs for modern "transonic"note jet airliners), but it's still pretty cool.
- The Bell XS-1 (redesignated X-1 in December 1946, becoming the first of fifty-six experimental aircraft and spacecraft designs in the X series to date) was the first aircraft able to fly faster than sound, in level flight. Though previous aircraft (most notably the North American F-86 Sabre) were capable of flying faster than sound, they could only do so in a dive. The X-1 demonstrated the necessary characteristics for a powered aircraft to fly faster than sound (streamlining, powerful engines, shorter wings than the shape of the supersonic shock cone) and set the stage for decades of aircraft design.
- NATO/US Space Exploration in general, and the Moon Landings in particular. The rockets built to carry high-yield strategic nuclear munitions to Soviet cities, once it became clear that the Soviets would be able to shoot down the US's nuclear-bomber airfleet fairly easily. Guidance systems were bulky and primitive and could only guide a missile to within a few miles of a target, so they would mount very high-yield nuclear warheads onto some rather large inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) just so they could be sure of annihilating their target-cities — or at least coating them with fallout. The rockets were already designed to exit the earth's atmosphere, and it transpired that The Moon was a far easier target than Sevastopol. Replacing the gigantic nuclear weapon with a space-capsule was almost laughably easy.
- Also, military-trained pilots. Of the 12 men to walk on the Moon, only one (Harrison Schmittnote ) had never been a member of the US Armed Forces. Of the remaining 11, only the first (Neil Armstrong) was directly employed by NASA: Armstrong was a former Navy fighter pilot, while the remaining 10 were still active-duty Air Force and Navy pilots (4 Air Force, 6 Navy).
- Antibiotics. In order to reduce deaths from wounds and illness, the US Military developed a mould-based antibiotic to supplement their supply of sulfa (chemical-based) antibiotics. These were so effective they phased out the use of medical maggotsnote entirely in the latter half of World War IInote
- Nylon—originally created for parachutes. Or rather, originally created for women's stockings, which used the silk needed for parachutes at the beginning of World War II; old stockings were turned into parachutes. And then they ran out of old silk stockings and started making the parachutes out of old nylon stockings and whatever other nylon they could get their hands on. Women held stocking drives to support the war effort.
- Duct tape—originally created as a waterproof packing tape for supply crates being carried ashore in amphibious landings. In the military duct tape is colored olive drab instead of silver, and nicknamed "mile a minute tape" or "ninety mile an hour tape".
- Military forces are usually among the first (and best-organised) forces to aid the starving and dispossessed in the aftermath of natural disasters. As the world's best-funded and most (logistically) capable military, the US is often startlingly quick to turn up on the scene — not least because of their huge air fleet and the sheer number of bases they have all over the world, which allows them to access even the most inhospitable territory. They also have a massive navy and, again, basing rights all over the place — so that enables them to bring aid in great bulk. They've even been known to divert their battle fleets to these ends, when they're not doing anything more important.
- On the internet an anecdote exists of a supposed conference listing some of the capabilities of aircraft carriers in disaster situations, including on-board hospitals, cafeterias designed to feed thousands, the ability to provide electricity to shore-based facilities, a landing point for rescue aircraft, and cargo space for thousands of tons of relief supplies and, to a lesser degree, the land and air vehicles to transport such. A side effect for nuclear-powered carriers note is that their nuclear plants' cooling systems have the side effect of being the world's largest portable desalination plants* capable of supplying fresh water indefinitely, just as fast as containers can be set up to receive and distribute it.
- When military historians or amateur military buffs play the "who was the best military in history" game, it's pretty much a consensus that the one area the US military has been better at than any armed force in history is logistics. No military is as capable of shipping troops and materiel from point A to point B, and this was a large (and frequently unheralded) contributing factor to the Allied victory in World War II. Sadly, this strength may have degraded in recent years as responsibility for logistical operations are outsourced more and more to unscrupulous civilian contractors and in some cases, to other countries.
- Their absolute logistics capability has never been greater, but their unnatural edge over the rest of the world (c.5% of world population, c.30% of world GDP in 1945) has faded over the years. During World War II, more than 90% of the Wehrmacht's transport pool was comprised of horse-drawn buggies and carts; if they could not hitch a ride or take a train, regular infantry had to march to the front lines. By contrast, the United States Army was entirely motorized, and practically every man who was within friendly territory could count on not having to walk over 50 miles to get where they needed to be. That being said, the ability to transport millions of tonnage across three thousand miles of ocean is no mean feat, even today.
- One of the benefits of joining the US military since WWII is having your college paid for by the Montgomery GI bill. One can also get a scholarship by joining the ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps, essentially a college level cadet program that leads into a military career as an officer). In addition, each service offers the ability to gain college credit, and in some cases having a degree is a requirement for promotion even for the enlisted. In America joining the military to get an education is a fairly common motivation, helping to make the military an institution of society in many parts of the US.
- Ballistic missile defenses. The lion's share of BMD technology is American in origin. The Navy's Standard Missile 3, on top of defending USN and Japanese cruisers and destroyers, is also based on land throughout Europe. The Army's THAAD system also protects American bases the world over. One of the only other significant BMD systems, that of Israel, is also heavily supported by the USA, monetarily and technologically. Suffice to say that US weaponry is the chief protection against the unlikely event of any sort of ballistic missile attack, regardless of source, for much of the globe.