Combat aircraft are designed to destroy enemy equipment. They are typically procured and developed by military forces and can be broadly categorized as fighter, bomber, electronic warfare, maritime patrol, and multirole aircraft. However, distinctions between types have become increasingly blurred as most modern aircraft are now adapted for numerous capabilities, i.e. a fighter aircraft is equipped to drop bombs, and so on.
Previously, aerial vehicles were limited in purpose and only useful for gathering information and the occasional light munitions drop. Fleets were composed of the likes of hot-air balloons and small airships. The first significant use of air forces during battle was during the American Civil War in which the Union Army Balloon Corps used hot-air balloons to survey enemy encampments. The use of air power in a combat role began during World War I when Dutch military forces designed a gun-equipped fighter plane. With the development of weaponized aircraft, militaries realized the battlefield value of establishing air supremacy or air superiority. But only after World War II and the advent of new technologies did the role of air power become systemic and central to military strategies. Between the two world wars, the potential of air capability (namely aerial bombing) began to dominate the military thinking of many Western countries' (including Britain and the U.S.). During the Banana Wars (wars protecting U.S. economic interests in Central America between 1898-1934), the United States Marine Corps developed and perfected dive bombing – a tactic in which an aircraft "dives" down toward a ground target to increase precision and maintain a line of sight with the payload. During World War II, new roles for battle on the "air front" were solidified, including the development of strategic bombing (bypassing trench warfare from the air and targeting civilian populations to force surrender). At the end of the war in 1947, the U.S. Air Force became a separate branch of the military.
Since then, airpower has continued to play an important role in the United States' global affairs. A persistent debate has been to what extent airpower is a sufficient force in conflicts. Since the early 20th century, many thought that air campaigns alone could decisively win victories. This doctrine was notably espoused by the "bomber generals" of World War II who pushed for larger reliance on air campaigns (such as General Curtis Lemay, leader of the Strategic Air Command, who designed and implemented strategic bombing in the Pacific theater and also earned the nickname "Bombs Away Lemay") and more recently in various conflicts in the Middle East, such as the "shock and awe" approach of the 2003 Iraq War. As technological advances made missiles increasingly accurate, the deployment of airpower shifted from mass attacks (i.e. carpet bombing – indiscriminate bombing of large swathes of territory) to a new era of precision. In World War II, only 18% of bombs fell within 1000 feet of their targets. In 2004, 70-80% of guided munitions fall within 10 meters of their targets. Proponents of independent air campaigns argue that these "decapitation" strategies – taking out leaders, communications, and economic infrastructure from the sky – spares the lives of troops on the ground and quickens the pace of war.
An alternative doctrine is the "hammer and anvil" theory in which airpower functions complementarily to ground power. Aerial strikes cause opposing forces to disperse, making it easier for ground forces to breach enemy lines. Notably employed in the first Gulf War in 1991, the United States fired missiles on command and control centers and other military infrastructure, dominating Iraqi airspace within a month. Before ground forces even began an invasion into Kuwait, the air campaign effectively dismantled the ability of Iraqi brigades and reinforcements to rally or communicate.
Indeed, air strikes are frequently what the United States initially resorts to for overseas intervention. Considered a limited engagement, air strikes alone are more politically feasible as opposed to full-on intervention. Aerial campaigns were promoted as a short-term military obligation by the NATO coalition during the Bosnian War in 1995 and the Kosovo War in 1999. Advocates of independent air campaigns consider these bombing campaigns a testament to the efficacy of airpower. Along with advances made by the Bosnian Muslim-Croatian Army on the ground, these aerial campaigns assisted in bringing about the Dayton Agreement, ending the Bosnian War and in forcing Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw Yugoslav forces from Kosovo, ending the Kosovo War.
More recently, aerial missile strikes have been the weapon of choice for U.S. action in the Middle East. During the Libyan national uprising in 2011, NATO coalition forces again used airpower-centric strategies. It was a U.S. deployed drone that targeted and struck Muammar Qaddafi's convoy as he was attempting to flee, ultimately allowing Libyan rebels to capture him. In the current conflict against the radical Islamic State (IS), the United States' efforts have been primarily conducted by air. As IS occupation caused a mass exodus of Christian Yazidi refugees, the United States used transport aircraft to deliver humanitarian aid. In the ongoing coalition strikes, airpower has destroyed a number of IS-captured and controlled oil facilities, including oil fields and refining factories. Believed to control 6 out of 10 of Syria's oil fields, the profits from black market oil provide IS with $1 to 5 million in revenue per day and are vital to funding the operations of the terrorist group.
Types of Combat Fixed Wing Aircraft