10. B-2 Stealth Bomber
Inspired by the flying wing concept of the 1950’s, the B-2 Spirit utilizes modern stealth technology to deliver a payload of either nuclear or conventional GPS-guided munitions. A two-man crew pilots the B-2, and its recessed induction fans serve to minimize its exhaust signature. Operated by the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman AFB, Missouri, a B-2 can hit targets worldwide after multiple aerial refuelings flying direct from its home station. B-2s first saw action over Kosovo in the late 1990s, and have been used in Iraq, Afghanistan and the 2011 Libyan conflict. Currently, 20 B-2s remain in active service.
9. XM25 Grenade Launcher
Nicknamed “The Punisher” by U.S. troops, the XM25 grenade launcher is one of the first true “smart” rifles. This 13-pound weapon fires 25mm grenades with a maximum effective range of 700 meters. The user can adjust the detonation range and the weapon comes equipped with a laser range finder. Air-bursting, flechette, and armor-piercing rounds are available for use, and the grenade tracks its distance by the number of revolutions completed after it has left the barrel. In late 2010, prototype XM25s were deployed to Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne Division, where soldiers reported the weapon was especially effective against covered or hidden emplacements. According to the Army Times, in one XM25 incident, an enemy combatant “was so badly wounded or so freaking scared that he dropped [his] weapon and ran,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Lehner. Limited production for the XM25 is scheduled to begin in 2013.
8. The M4 Assault Rifle
The M4 is a modern variant of the M16, and provides solutions to some problems faced by the famous assault weapon. Introduced in 1963, the lightweight, gas-operated M16 had been plagued with malfunctions and jamming issues. The M4 is lighter (only 6.36 pounds empty) and has a shorter stock and barrel than an M16, but still maintains a similarity with about 80 percent of the parts incorporated. Like the M16, the M4 uses 5.56x45mm NATO-standard rounds, and improvements have been made with the gas piston system. While the shortened barrel also means a shorter range, the M4 is an excellent weapon for urban combat, where troops are often engaged with an enemy less than 100 yards away.
7. GPS and Smart Munitions
The first laser-guided munitions were introduced during the Vietnam War. These were standard “dumb” bombs outfitted with guidance systems and steerable fins; they would adjust course and glide into their targets as long as a laser designator was aimed at it. This was provided by a laser pod aboard an aircraft or by a handheld system utilized by troops on the ground. This enabled pinpoint destruction of targets in one strike rather than repeated attacks with hundreds of bombs. The modern JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) and JSOW (Joint Stand-Off Weapons), introduced in the mid-1990s, take this one step further. The GBU-31 JDAM is a 2,000-pound, Mk-84 warhead fitted with an inertial guidance system and GPS. The AGM-154 JSOW is a cruise-missile-like guided bomb that can be launched from an aircraft more than 80 miles distant. These give pilots an all-weather capability not seen on the early laser-guided bombs, as well as a standoff attack and enhanced survivability option.
6. X-37B Spaceplane
On April 22, 2010, an Atlas V rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with a classified payload. Weeks later, amateur astronomers reported that the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B had achieved orbit for the first time. Looking like a mini-space shuttle, the X-37B is an unmanned surveillance platform that was designed, like the space shuttle, to have a vertical takeoff and aircraft-landing capability in addition to being reusable. That initial X-37B orbital flight lasted almost eight months before its successful return to Earth. Exactly what the X-37B was doing while in orbit is classified, but its 40-degree inclination orbit on the two test flights flown thus far takes it over several hot spots worldwide.
5. F-22 Raptor Fighter Jet
Designed by Lockheed Martin/Boeing to replace the U.S. Air Force’s aging fleet of F-15 Eagles, the F-22 is a twin-engine air interceptor designed to achieve and maintain air superiority. To this end, the Raptor incorporates stealth technology with unmatched agility and maneuverability. The F-22 also marks a return to the internal weapons systems of the 1950s, carrying a mix of air-to-air or air-to-ground weapons in its three fuselage bomb bays. The F-22 also comes equipped with the venerable M61A1 20mm Vulcan rotary cannon, an air-to-air weapon of last resort. The first overseas deployment of F-22 Raptors took place in 2007.
4. JSTARS (Joint Surveillance Attack Radar System)
Little appreciated next to flashier weapons systems, JSTARS is a modified Boeing 707-300 series aircraft (known as an E-8C) that serves as an airborne command and control center. Throughout the history of warfare, commanders have struggled to get a complete view of the action. JSTARS in an integrated tactical system that gives the US military real-time information along with command and control of all air, sea, and land assets. Prototype JSTARS were first used with great success in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm, and the plane has given the US military an unsung advantage in every operation since. Based out of Warner Robins, Georgia, the 17 aircraft in the JSTARS fleet represent the only all-weather command and control platform of their kind in the world.
3. Unmanned Drones
Another aerial platform introduced in the mid-1990s has been quietly changing the nature of the modern battlefield. The first unmanned aerial vehicles were developed as target drones and for surveillance. Modern UAVs include such systems as the RQ-4 Global Hawk and the MQ-1 Predator. The United States Air Force and the CIA have used the Predator to track and neutralize several high-profile targets during the global war on terror. The armed version can fire three Hellfire missiles. Again, an unmanned drone allows for the ability to engage the enemy without risk to the pilot; a UAV can be controlled remotely from a pilot based half a world away. All branches of the service operate some variant of UAV, and helicopter and even man-portable reconnaissance versions have been envisioned.
2. Stealth Helicopter
The May 2, 2011 raid that saw U.S. Navy Seals take down Osama bin Laden also revealed some curious new technology — a modified “stealth helicopter” that apparently malfunctioned and had to be destroyed on site. News reports broadcast later that day show a tail section of what appears to be a modified H-60 Black Hawk helicopter heavily baffled and modified with sound suppression equipment. Long theorized by aviation analysts, this addresses the key problem of assaulting by helicopter; their inherently noisy nature. Much of this is due to the “thrumming” oscillations set up by the tail and the main rotors; while it’s impossible to make a helicopter completely silent, this new design appears to utilize computer-designed airframe and advanced-coating technology to make it a relatively quiet ride.
1. AC-130/U Gunship
Introduced in 1995, the AC-130/U gunship is the first C-130 designed specifically from the factory as an aerial Special Ops fire support platform. This concept has its roots in the AC-47 and AC-119 gunships of the Vietnam Era, and is a direct descendant of the AC-130/H gunship. The U model, like the H variant, comes equipped with a 40mm Bofors cannon (the old AAA “pom-pom guns” of World War II movie fame) and a trainable 105mm Howitzer (by far the largest aerial gun ever fielded). The U model, however, replaces the 2x20mm guns with a single 25mm cannon. All are aimed out the left side of the fuselage; the AC-130/U gives Special Forces teams deep in enemy territory a heavy artillery option that can orbit a target area until the job is done.
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David Dickinson retired from the USAF in 2007 at the rank of E-7 Master Sergeant. He was an Aircraft Armament Systems Specialist for over 20 years, serving in the 1st Gulf War, South Korea, Somalia, and the global war on terror. He’s worked on F-16, F-15, and A-10 airframes, as well as AC-130H gunships with Special Ops and PA-200 Tornadoes with the Italian Air Force.