Military aircraft can be fixed wing (propeller and jet engine driven aircraft) or rotary wing (aircraft that uses rotor blades to lift off), and be classified into combat and non-combat. However, various types of military aircraft perform different functions. Categorizing them as simply combat or non-combat will not help further identification of military airplanes.
Military combat airplanes are equipped with weapons that can be used against enemy equipment. Non-combat airplanes are designed to transport arms and ammunition, payload, military personnel. These airplanes are also used for reconnaissance as well as search and rescue purposes. Some non-combat military airplanes are equipped with weapons and are used during dangerous missions that require flying into enemy territory. Combat and non-combat military aircraft are further divided into different types of airplanes used for different purposes:
Warplanes or combat airplanes are broadly categorized into bombers and fighters. Bombers are low maneuverable aircrafts designed to attack ground and sea targets. With a large weapon carrying capacity, bombers have a long range and can be refueled by a tanker aircraft. They can be further classified as strategic and tactical bombers. Strategic bombers are used to attack strategic targets such as bridges, factories, shipyards and supply facilities. Tactical ones are smaller aircrafts designed to attack targets such as armored vehicles and enemy troops. Examples of famous bombers include Avro Lancaster, B-24 Liberator, Gotha G, and Tupolev Tu-160.
When compared with bombers, fighters are short-range but fast and high maneuverable aircraft. They are designed for air-to-ground and air-to-air combats. A fighter airplane can target both air and ground vehicles. It can carry an array of weapons, including cannons, machine guns, rockets and guided missiles. Some fighters are designed to provide support to friendly ground troops while others are designed to shoot enemy airplanes during the day or at night. Advanced fighter bombers are versatile aircrafts that have a capacity to carry nuclear weapons and strike ground targets. Modern fighter-bombers include F-16 Fighting Falcon, Chengdu J-10, Sukhoi Su-34, Mirage 2000 and Panavia Tornado.
Attack helicopters are helicopters specifically designed to carry an array of weapons such as machine-guns, rockets, guided missiles and auto-cannons. Attack choppers not only provide air support to friendly ground troops, but are also used to destroy enemy armor concentrations. For the sole purpose of defense, some attack choppers have air-to-air combat abilities. The AH-64 Apache of the U.S. Army and the Tiger UHT of the German Army are good examples of attack helicopters.
The identification of military airplanes for non-combat purposes is not just limited to transport vehicles. There are a variety of aircraft, including support types and front-line aircraft. Military transport aircraft have the capacity to carry war supplies and troops as well as ground armored vehicles. These airplanes can either be fixed wing or rotary wing types. Well-known military transport fixed wing aircraft include the C-5 Galaxy, Embraer’s KC-390 (project underway) and the Kawasaki C-1. Famous transport helicopters include the Kazak Mi-17 and CH-53.
Another key type of military transport aircraft is the aerial tanker. It is used to refuel fighters and bombers during flight with the help of special drogue fittings. The KC-10 Extender is the best example of an air-to-air tanker.
Reconnaissance or surveillance aircrafts are aircrafts used to monitor enemy activity during wartime or peacetime. Generally, these aircrafts are not equipped with weapons as they are only used for surveillance purposes. Surveillance aircraft carry different types of sensors, including photographic and infrared sensors. Some carry electronic equipment to detect submarines while others are used to warn enemy approach. The Mirage III R and the Lockheed U-2 are some of the best examples of reconnaissance aircraft.
Some Excellent Resources to Identify Military Aircraft
Here are some very good resources that might help in the identification of military airplanes, both for combat or non-combat purposes.They provide excellent photographs of military airplanes from around the world as well as detailed line drawings that offer three views of the aircraft:
1. FAS.org (Federation of American Scientists): Provides in-depth information on various aircraft types, be it bomber, fighter, cargo or attack helicopter. Just click on any aircraft link and you will get in-depth stats and specifications on any type of aircraft. Different monochrome and colorful photographs as well as line drawings educate about any aircraft.
2. GlobalSecurity.org: The site boasts an array of military aircraft from the U.S. or around the world. Each aircraft is classified under different military aircraft types. Just click on any aircraft name and get in-depth information and statistics on the make, build and purpose of operation.
Gunston, Bill (1986). Jane’s Aerospace Dictionary. London, England: Jane’s Publishing Company Limited.
"Military aircraft." McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology. The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2005. Answers.com 12 Mar. 2010.
1. An A-10 Thunderbolt II:
https://www.defenseimagery.mil/imagery.html;jsessionid=CF7D1475C2661079A6E2B8B4BDE78FC4#guid=2bc39d32a874a3b47fe16786efb01b227dfc5bc1 (Public Domain Image)
Photographer: SRA Greg L. Davis, USAF
2. F-16 Fighting Falcon:
Photographer: Master Sgt. Andy Dunaway
3. AH-64D Apache:
"Photo Courtesy of U.S. Army" – by Tech. Sgt. Andy Dunaway
4. USAF Lockheed U-2 Dragon Lady
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Usaf.u2.750pix.jpg (www.af.mil, Adrian Pingstone)