F-35 directed by The Durf

Primer on Modern U.S. Military Aircraft

It’s an exciting time for military aircraft. Critics and congress have been battling head-to-head with top Air Force and Navy brass over some of the most technologically advanced aircraft ever created. Long before first contact with the enemy, the military has had to defend its new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and develop fiscal fortifications for its B-21 stealth bomber. Even the battle tested A-10 Warthog has been under constant threat at home as it provides close air support abroad.

Unfortunately, most op-eds and feature pieces assume that their readers have a decent familiarity with military planes and lingo. Here’s a primer to help you get past the jargon and engage with the action.

What are those letters and numbers?

You’ve probably heard of the F-something and B-whatever, but what do those letters and numbers mean? Here are the basics for U.S. aircraft:


A = Attacker

Attack aircraft focus on shooting at things on the ground. They typically engage in more “tactical” targeting than bombers, providing close support to troops or machinery on the ground.

B = Bomber

Bombers fire at things on the ground like attackers, but typically engage in more “strategic” targeting. Bombers can carry much larger payloads of explosives, and can usually fly longer distances.

C = Cargo Transport

Cargo planes carry stuff. Some planes with a “C” designation just carry people. Others can carry large equipment like tanks, or disassembled helicopters and fighter jets.

E = Electronic Configuration

Technical advantages increasingly determine victory in modern warfare, and some aircraft have special equipment or designs to improve our technological upper-hand. They might enhance communications, collect information, disrupt enemy communications, or enhance radar detection.

F = Fighter

Originally, this class of planes referred to “air superiority” aircraft. Usually faster, smaller, and more maneuverable than any of the other aircraft, the military designed fighters almost exclusively to own the skies.

Today, fighters still need to hold their own in a dogfight (sort-of, more on that later), but increasingly take on attack tasks.

K = Tanker

The most important plane in the sky is the tanker (such as the KC – 135). This is for two reasons: (1) it provides in-flight fuel to smaller aircraft to enhance their range and improve combat effectiveness. (2) My dad flew this in the Air Force and the Air National Guard, and there is no more important plane than the one your dad flies.

There are lots of other letters that can be included, but this is just a primer, and these are the ones you’ll be most likely to come across.

Two letters

Whenever you see an aircraft with two letters (like the KC-135 just mentioned), that means that the aircraft also has a “modified mission.” In the KC-135’s case, the plane is essentially a cargo plane, but the “K” indicates that its cargo is fuel.

Another notable aircraft with two letters is the AC-130 gunship. With the “C” indicating that it’s primary function is cargo, and the “A” standing for “attack,” it tells you that this is a heavily armed version of a cargo plane.

There are some different modifications available than simply tacking on the letter available for the primary mission (such as “Q” for drones), but the possible combinations are too extensive to be covered in a primer.


The official documents dictate that the numbers following the letter increase sequentially with each new plane design. However, the exceptions are at least as common as the rule. In general, a higher number indicates a newer design.

Sometimes an aircraft will have an extra letter after the numbers as well, such as with the F-35A, F-35B, and F-35C. The letter after the number typically just indicates a modified variant of the original plane, without seriously changing its primary or modified mission. The F-35A, B, and C are all multi-role fighters, but the A is designed for conventional takeoff and landing, the B for shorter takeoff and landing, and the C for use on aircraft carriers. Sometimes the letter will just indicate that the plane has been upgraded rather than really “modified,” and the letters usually just increase sequentially.

Fighter Roles

Although “F” stands for “fighter,” the kind of fighting that fighters do has blurred throughout the years. Here are some of the tasks or roles you’ll often hear about.

Air Superiority

When you think about fighter jets, you probably think about them in an “Air Superiority” role. These planes can engage with other fighters in enemy airspace and have a shot at victory.

Traditionally built small, light, fast, and maneuverable, modern “air superiority” fighters (such as the F-22) increasingly rely on technological advantages. Things like stealth and weapons that can target and hit other aircraft from “Beyond Visual Range” (BVR) are often central to thoughts on future air superiority designs.


Although fighters don’t normally have an “A” mission or modification (except the F/A-18), most fighters can still be configured for ground attacks. Some “fighters” like the F-117 are actually purely “attack” aircraft, but end up with an “F” mission due to other similarities they share with fighters (or just to attract the kinds of pilots that want to fly in fighters).

Close Air Support

Close Air Support (CAS) involves protecting friendlies on the ground, usually in close quarters and dangerous situations. This is similar to attack missions, but involving greater coordination with friendly forces, and often exposes the aircraft to more enemy fire.

The US currently relies on the A-10 Warthog in permissive environments (areas where the enemy doesn’t have a lot of anti-aircraft capabilities), but the US plans on transferring much of this role to other fighters in the future (more on that later).


This term is increasingly (if not completely) obsolete. This role focuses on stopping enemy aircraft from completing missions over local airspace (such as bombers coming to fly over your city). The US fulfills this role with its fighters, but Russia and some other countries still maintain some dedicated interceptors.

Multi-role/Strike Fighter

Multi-role or Strike aircraft should handle some or all of the above roles well, usually with a focus on attack missions. Many debates center around whether having a multi-role “jack of all trades” fighter is better or worse than several aircraft dedicated to different specialties. We’ll address this controversy in another post.

Stealth Air Superiority/Multi-role

Stealth is all the rage these days, and for good reason: if the enemy can’t see you, the enemy probably won’t shoot you down. Modern fighters (e.g. the F-22 and F-35) and bombers (like the B-2 and proposed B-21) rely heavily on stealth to maintain a technical advantage in battle.

Stealth aircraft aren’t actually completely invisible to radar. Lower frequency radars can often detect the presence of an aircraft, though without enough accuracy to send a missile (or even necessarily another plane) to intercept it. Infrared homing (or “heat seeking”) weapons may also be able to find a stealth aircraft, though measures are taken to reduce the heat these planes emit as well.

Aircraft Generations

You can hardly read an article about the F-35 without the author dropping the phrase “5th generation.” This refers to a commonly used, but somewhat blurry classification of fighters. Put simply, the fighters of an earlier generation should have little hope of victory in combat with a later generation fighter.

It’s not worth worrying about generations 1-3 at this point. You really just need to know a little about the 4th and 5th generations for intelligent conversation.

4th Generation

Most fighters today get classified as “4th generation.” This includes the F-14, 15, 16, and F/A-18, the Eurofighter, and essentially the entire fleet of Russian fighters. These fighters are fairly advanced technologically, highly maneuverable and fast, and often have reduced radar signatures (though not to the point of true “stealth”). As airframes have been upgraded, some add a 4+ or 4++ to their generation designation, but they’re still essentially 4th generation planes.

5th Generation

Militaries now want 5th generation fighters. The first true 5th generation fighter is the F-22. The recently introduced F-35 is the only other unequivocally a 5th generation fighter in service, but Russia and China are developing their own with introductions scheduled within the next few years.

5th generation fighters integrate high levels of stealth with cutting-edge tech. These fighters can communicate lots of information both to the pilot and to other entities in the air or on the ground to keep strong situational awareness. These fighters are almost more computer than jet, enabling the pilot to reduce his or her focus on side-tasks. 5th generation aircraft get their edge by leveraging a family of systems that work together in ways that older aircraft can’t handle.

Although different sources have developed slightly different classifications for each generation, the same planes typically get lumped in the same categories, and the differences don’t matter much to us casual enthusiasts.

Technical jargon

Knowing a few other random terms will give you a good head-start at understanding the latest happenings with modern aircraft.

Fly by Wire (FBW)

In old planes, the control stick was mechanically connected to the flaps and rudder of the plane. In modern planes, the connection is electronic, mediated by a computer. The “wire” in the phrase “fly by wire” refers to the fact that electrical wires connect the pilot with the mechanics of the airplane.

FBW enables the plane to handle a lot of the flying. If the control stick stays steady, the plane knows that the pilot wants the plane to stay steady, even if wind and other aerodynamic issues try to force the plane to do other things. The plane can then do its own minor adjustments to ensure that the plane stays where the pilot intends it to go without requiring constant pilot input to correct for every little thing.

The computer regulation applies not only to staying steady, but also to helping modulate turns and other activities. Essentially, FBW allows electronic intervention and enhancement to a pilot’s abilities.

Off-boresight targeting

You’re probably familiar with scenes of fighter jets jockeying for position to get directly behind their adversary before pulling the trigger and blowing them away. It would sure be convenient if they didn’t need to go through all the work to get directly behind their enemy.

Off-boresight targeting to the rescue.

Off-boresight targeting is typically done by installing a device in the pilot’s helmet. The pilot can then look at the enemy to “lock-on” to the target, and send the missile on its way. Modern air-intercept missiles basically always have homing capabilities, so as long as the missile can get a lock on where it needs to go, it can (often) get itself there.

High-Low Strategy

In the 70’s the US military purchased aircraft in a “high-low” strategy. This referred to purchasing some of a high-capability aircraft with higher weight and cost, and lots of a lower weight, capability, and cost aircraft. This resulted in the high-cost F-15 with the lower cost F-16.

Having a “high-low” fleet allows greater specialization for the platform you use on each task. It allows you to keep costs down as you use cheap aircraft for missions that don’t require expensive specifications, while still being prepared for more advanced threats.

Beyond Visual Range (BVR)

This refers to engaging the enemy before you come close enough to see him. Advanced tracking and sensors make this possible. Stealth technology makes it difficult for the enemy to do to you.


Simply, these are missiles. There will be lots of variants (AIM-9, AIM-120 AMRAAM, etc.), but when you hear about a plane being able to use one of these, it just means that it can be equipped with a certain missile. Missiles are an interesting topic on their own, but we won’t address them here. The acronyms can be useful though:

AIM = Air Intercept Missile

AMRAAM = Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (aircraft use these to engage BVR)

AGM = Air-to-Ground Missile

HARM = High speed Anti-Radiation Missile (referring to the electro-magnetic radiation from radars. Essentially, it’s a bit of a radar-seeking missile.)

Getting past the basics

The real fun of learning the basics is diving in to the discussion. Next week we’ll cover today’s hottest debates around U.S. military aircraft.

Keep seeking truth.



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