Since at least the end of World War II, America has usually boasted the most advanced warplanes in the world. Indeed, the Soviet Air Force often built planes in response to new U.S. variants, and these were almost always inferior.
American designs are still some of the most sought-after around the world, as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program has demonstrated. Moreover, several U.S. aircraft—such as the F-22 Raptor and the B-2 Spirit—are without peer in active service. After years of service, reliable designs like the multirole F/A-18 Hornet and the unmanned MQ-9 Reaper still promise to give opponents a run for their money.
Here are the five most lethal warplanes in America’s arsenal:
Recognizable to many Americans as the jet used by the Blue Angels performance squad, the F/A-18 Hornet is a McDonnell Douglas/Boeing Northrop designed all-weather multirole aircraft. The Hornet is notable for its versatility, and is used by the U.S. Navy and Marines, as well as by Canada, Australia, Finland, Kuwait, Malaysia, Spain and Switzerland.
F/A-18’s dispatched from an array of military bases and from U.S. aircraft carriers boast a combat radius exceeding 900 km. This makes the Hornet an especially potent instrument with which to project American power. Twin F404-GE-402 turbofan engines allow the Hornet to achieve speeds above Mach 1.7. At times it has flown at supersonic speeds.
The F/A-18 can be fitted with a variety of weapons systems to conduct both fighter and attack missions. For air-to-air combat, the Hornet can be equipped with Sidewinder and AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles. Raytheon’s Paveway laser-guided bombs are used for attack missions. The accuracy of laser-guided bombs launched from Hornet aircraft is enhanced by the F/A-18’s forward-looking infrared sensor systems.
Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor represents a major achievement in American military technology. No other country actively flies an aircraft that can match the Raptor. Entering service in 2005, the F-22 is a fifth-generation multirole air superiority stealth fighter. The qualitative edge the F-22 grants the United States is so valuable that America imposed an export ban on the aircraft.
The Raptor’s stealth technology allows it to slip into combat zones relatively undetected. Though the F-22 is 62 feet long and has a wingspan of 44.5 feet, it has the radar signature of a bird. Two F119-PW-100 jet engines propel the F-22, allowing it to achieve speeds of Mach 1.8.
The F-22 is notable for its clean configuration: all of its weapons systems are stored internally. This improves the Raptor’s stealth capabilities and reduces drag, making the plane more aerodynamic.
In addition to these impressive systems, the Raptor is equipped with a range of weapons that make it a formidable instrument of both air-to-air combat and air-to-ground operations. AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles and Sidewinders give the F-22 a robust air-to-air potential. It also is equipped with a short-range M61A2 20mm cannon, allowing the Raptor to excel in dogfighters. For air-to-ground attacks, the F-22 can carry two 1,000-pound GBU-32 Joint Direct Attack Munitions or eight 250-pound GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bombs.
In September 2014, the F-22 engaged in its first combat mission. American pilots flew the Raptor alongside allied Arab air forces in Syria while conducting sorties against the Islamic State.
F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF)
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, also known as the Lightning II, is a Lockheed Martin designed fifth-generation multirole stealth fighter. The Joint Strike Fighter program is primarily funded by the United States, with support from the Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway. Washington will use F-35s in the Air Force (starting 2016), Navy (2018), and Marine Corps (2015) as a replacement for aging F-16 and F/A-18 variants. Subject to controversy in the United States for its immense cost, the F-35 nevertheless promises to be a powerful tool for the American military and allied forces.
Like the F-22, the F-35 is a stealth aircraft with a reduced radar signature. The JSF can store weapons externally. Alternatively, the plane can fly with a clean configuration, improving its aerodynamics and enhancing its stealth capacity. Powered by Pratt and Whitney’s F-135 engine, the JSF has a maximum speed of Mach 1.6 and a combat radius of over 1,100 km.
One of the advantages (or determinants, depending on who you ask) of the JSF is that a number of variants are being built, such as a carrier model and a version with Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) capability. For air-to-air combat, the F-35 is equipped with an array of weapons like the AIM-120 AMRAAM and a General Dynamics GAU-22/A 25mm cannon. To strike surface targets, the F-35 can carry Paveway IV laser guided bombs and small diameter bombs. Unlike the F-22, the F-35 can carry the B61 nuclear bomb.
While an export ban is in place for the F-22, the F-35 was built for use in U.S. and allied militaries. All countries that funded the JSF project will employ the F-35. Israel, Singapore, Japan and possibly South Korea are also expected to field the F-35.
This is crucial as the F-35 is most potent when operating as a fleet. As Robbin Laird has noted, when F-35s fly as a fleet:
“The individual airplanes are interconnected, operate in 360-degree operational space, and the machines pass the data throughout the network…. It is the interconnected C5ISR delivered by the fleet, coupled with the ability to work with the off-boarding of weapons, which shapes a new way forward. Target acquisition does not have to be limited to weapons carried on board. This means that classic distinctions between tactical fighters doing close air support, air superiority missions or air defense missions become blurred. The fleet as a whole identifies targets for the various mission sets and can guide weapons from any of its elements to a diversity of targets. The reach of the fleet is the key to the operation of the fleet, not the range of individual aircraft.”
The MQ-9 Reaper is a General Atomics designed unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV). Based on the successful Predator model, MQ-9 drones are designed to carry out attacks against ground targets. Since entering service in 2007, the Reaper has been deployed to Afghanistan with the United States Air Force and to the U.S.-Mexico frontier with the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection.
MQ-9 Reaper drones are flown remotely by a pilot and sensor operator. The Reaper’s Allied Signal TPE331-10GD turboprop engine gives this UCAV a combat radius of over 1,800 km. The Reaper can reach speeds of up to 480 km/h. The MQ-9 can carry nearly 4,000 lbs. in arms (800 lbs. in internal payload and 3,000 lbs. external). Reaper drones can be fitted with an array of weapons, including Enhanced Paveway II laser guided bombs, Hellfire II anti-armor missiles, and the GBU-38 JDAM. These UCAVs also wield sophisticated cameras allowing them to perform surveillance missions.
Outside of the United States, the MQ-9 is also used by NATO allies Italy and the United Kingdom.
Rounding out our list is the B-2 Spirit. The B-2 is a stealth aircraft with a “flying wing” design. Designed by Northrop Grumman at the tail end of the Cold War, this strategic bomber entered service in 1997. Today, the Spirit is used exclusively by the United States Air Force and remains a formidable instrument in the American arsenal.
The B-2’s unique shape helps to reduce its radar signature. A special coating of a radar-absorbent substance alternate high-frequency material (AHFM) enhances this stealth capacity. Even the Spirit’s engines contribute to its stealth: the General Electric F118-GE-100 turbofan engines have exhaust systems equipped with temperature controls. This helps diminish the B-2’s thermal signature. The B-2 can travel over 11,100 km without refueling and reach high subsonic speeds. Spirit bombers can be equipped with 40,000 lbs. in ordinance, including nuclear and conventional weapons systems. The AGM-129 cruise missile, with a range of over 2,400 km, extends the B-2’s reach well beyond the operational limits of its engines and fuel reserves. A stock of B-61 and B-83 nuclear bombs grants the Spirit ever-more devastating capabilities. Notably, the U.S. Air Force has recently upgraded some B-2s to be able to carry out the 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator, the largest conventional bomb in the world. This bunker-buster weapon can be used to destroy underground sites like Iran’s Fordow nuclear plant.
Though first conceptualized during the Cold War, the B-2 Spirit entered into service in a world without the Soviet Union. However, far from becoming obsolete, the bomber has been deployed in combat missions in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. U.S. officials even considered using the B-2 to bomb Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, but abandoned the idea in favor of the now-famous Navy SEAL raid.