America is an air power. And for every kind of air power, the U.S. has different, iconic warplanes.
When the Pentagon needs to frighten its enemies and rivals, the Air Force deploys fast, radar-evading F-22 stealth fighters or B-52 heavy bombers bristling with weaponry. When threats turn to violence, the Navy and Air Force can call on their huge arsenals of F-15, F-16 and F-18 jet fighters to drop bombs and fire missiles.
For the quieter, more subtle work of spotting, tracking and killing suspected terrorists, the U.S. relies on armed Predator and Reaper drones operated by the Air Force, Army and CIA. And in the difficult, dirty slog of ground warfare, the Army calls on its Apache gunship helicopters and Blackhawk transports and the Marines their controversial V-22 tiltrotors.
But for a wide range of more secretive missions, the Pentagon possesses tiny forces of specialized, and largely unknown, warplanes.
Some are rugged transports meant to blend in with civilian air fleets and deliver commandos or diplomats to remote battlefields — or provide overhead surveillance during highly classified Special Operations. Others are electronic wizards, performing esoteric but vital communications functions in the high-tech management of the Pentagon’s far-flung forces. And then there are the “aggressors” — foreign-made or modified domestic models prized for their ability to accurately simulate the capabilities of America’s enemies.
Some of these special aircraft are obscure by design. A few are top secret. The rest go unrecognized because, in an American aerial armada populated mostly by fast, loud fighters, lumbering bombers and jet transports and innumerable helicopters, they seem unimpressive. But the vital roles they play in America’s domination of the air belie their unassuming exteriors.
What follows are just 10 of the ass-kicking U.S. warplanes you probably didn’t know existed.
What better way to train for aerial warfare than to simulate entire air campaigns, right down to using U.S.-made planes as stand-ins for the other side’s air force?
That’s the thinking behind the Pentagon’s Red Flag series of wargames as well as for countless smaller simulated battles. To represent the Russian-made fighters flown by many of America’s enemies, the Air Force use its standard F-15 and F-16, flown by highly experienced pilots well versed in adversary tactics.
But the Navy and Marines take a different approach. They fly 31 Northrop F-5s, a type of lightweight dogfighter not used by regular U.S. squadrons — and which closely duplicates the fast-turning performance of many Russian-made planes.
The F-5 has been out of production for decades, so when the Navy needed to purchase additional copies of the maneuverable jet, it negotiated for some lightly used copies from Switzerland, ensuring the reinforced adversary squadrons will be waging simulated warfare for years to come.