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US Air Force: Weapons
US Air Force: Weapons
Ever since an Italian pilot threw a large grenade from his cockpit at a
Libyan oasis on 1 November 1911, airplanes and their weapons have been dedicated
to the proposition that the 'Bad Guys' of the world seem to behave best with a
knee on their chest and a knife at their throat. Today, warplanes are the knee,
their weapons are the knife. There is nothing 'nice' or humane about these tools
their job is to destroy things and people. Precision-guided weapons were not
developed to conduct more humane warfare, they simply enable more targets to be
destroyed more quickly with fewer aircraft. Cluster bombs specialize in killing
and maiming large numbers of people who happen to be outside shooting at
airplanes or friendly troops.
A warplane without its weapons is useless. This is why the questions, "How
fast does your airplane go?" or "How far can it fly?" usually elicit a reply of
"It depends," from a pilot. Just like the family car can not go as fast or far
as the salesman said it would when it is loaded with Mom and Dad and the kids,
and a luggage rack on the roof, neither will a warplane ready for the business
of war. How many weapons are carried, what kind they are, what altitude they are
delivered from, what defenses have to be penetrated, what other kinds of
aircraft are in the strike package, and even which fuzes are being used are
typical of the factors evaluated for their impact on a given mission (and
It is important to realize that just because an aircraft is able to carry a
given weapon does not mean that it actually trains to employ it operationally
and commanders are extremely reluctant to send their aircrew into combat with
weapons they have not trained with. Two examples: while A-10s are authorized to
deliver laser-guided bombs, they never do Mavericks are their fort; on the
other hand, F-111Fs are authorized to employ Maverick, but they never touch it
preferring their trusty LGBs instead.
It is interesting to note how warplane design is affected by weapon
performance. For instance, during the Vietnam War air-to-air missile performance
was abysmal. This, combined with the inability to positively identify aircraft
as friend or foe until they were within visual range, resulted in numerous
dogfights. It is no coincidence that every fighter produced since that war has
had a gun and incredible maneuverability. But, with airborne warning and control
system (AWACS) airborne radars to identify the bad guys and the increased
lethality of air-to-air missiles, almost all aerial engagements during the Gulf
War were over 'before the merge' (when dogfighting begins), leaving both the
maneuverability and gun virtually unused for their intended purpose. This is
even more interesting in light of the recent selection of the advanced tactical
fighter, when the engine/airframe combination with the lowest thrust and highest
drag was selected, at least in part because of a perception that it will be
slightly more maneuverable in a slow-speed dogfight something good fighter
pilots avoid like the plague, despite what the film 'Top Gun' might lead one to
This article 'demystifies' weapons designations as much as possible. Most
of the prefixes and suffixes which append the nomenclature have simple meanings.
For instance, the prefix ' AF/' indicates an item used only by the Air Force,
while ' AN/' means one used by both the Air Force and Navy. Using the current
weapon designation system, an '/A' indicates the device remains attached to the
exterior of the aircraft, a '/B' suffix that it is released from the aircraft to
do whatever it is designed to do, and a '/C' is retained within the bomb bay.
While the original design has just a numerical designation, subsequent models
are indicated by a letter following the number (e.g. GBU-12/B, -12 A/B, etc.).
Dropping and firing live weapons is something done infrequently during
training, and most of the time training ordnance is used. For missiles this
means rounds with working seekers, but no rocket motors, warheads or guidance
sections. Where a live missile would display black (guidance), yellow (warhead),
or brown (rocket motor) bands, training rounds display either blue bands or
paint the entire section blue.
Copyright (c) 1995 SoftKey Multimedia Inc.; All Rights Reserved.
US Air Force: Weapons
While structures and other 'hard' targets are best dealt with by classical 'bombs,'
area targets such as troop and armor concentrations, truck parks and artillery batteries
are more susceptible to cluster munitions. Many early cluster munitions were dispersed
from containers retained by the aircraft. This had two major drawbacks. First, it
increased aircraft drag, thus decreasing range. Also, the dispersion pattern of the
bomblets was very dependent on speed and altitude, forcing the aircraft to maintain a
predictable flight path during deliverynever a wise move in combat! For these reasons,
only dispensers released from the delivery aircraft are used today. Once these are
released from the aircraft, the dispenser shell breaks apart, scattering the bomblets.
Most cluster bomb dispensers have 14-in (35-cm) suspension lug spacing.
Modern cluster bombs, like general-purpose bombs, are employed by all tactical
fighters as well as B-52s. Unexploded cluster bomblets in general, especially the older
ones used with the USAF's SUU-30 and the Navy's Mk 20, were the most difficult weapons to
dispose of after the end of the 1991 Gulf War.
M129 Cluster Bomb
The M129 cluster is used to deliver propaganda leaflets. Shaped generally like the
M117 750-pound class bomb, but constructed of fiberglass reinforced plastic, it weighs 92
pounds empty and about 200 loaded. It splits longitudinally to dispense about 30,000 5-in
x 7-in leaflets. Painted overall olive drab, the M129 is currently qualified for use with
the B-52 and F-16. During Desert Storm, two M129s were mixed into loads of M117 bombs
dropped by B-52Gs. Sixteen were also dropped over Baghdad by a four-ship of F-16s on 26
Mk 20 Rockeye II Cluster Bombs
The Mk 7 dispenser was the basis of most Navy cluster bombs from Vietnam well into
the 1990s. The $3,400 Mk 20 ' Rockeye II ' anti-armor weapon was the most widely used
version of the Mk 7. Developed by the Naval Weapons Center and adopted by the Air Force,
this subsonic-delivery dispenser first entered service in 1968 and was used extensively
during both Vietnam and Desert Storm. This was the ONLY cluster bomb to bear the title
'Rockeye II'. (The USAF's CBU-87 was often mistakenly identified as Rockeye II during
Desert Storm, but is a completely different weapon. The Mk 12 ' Rockeye I ' was a
pre-Vietnam developmental 750-pound dispenser containing 96 anti-armor bomblets that
wasn't produced.) Rockeye has been widely exported and used on all USAF combat aircraft
except the B-1, B-2 and F-117. Although many later Navy versions of Rockeye were thermal
protected for increased safety in case of a fire during carrier-based operations, non of
the versions used by the Air Force have this feature.
The Rockeye II's Mk 118 shaped-charge bomblets look very much like throwing darts
and are designed to be effective against both tanks and ships. The detonation of each
bomblet focuses a slug of copper against the point of impact with a force of 250,000 psi.
All versions of Rockeye use the Mk 118 Mod 0 bomblet except for the Mk 20 Mod 4, which
uses the Mod 1. The only difference between the two bomblets is that the Mk 118 Mod 0
requires 1.2 seconds to arm after being dispensed, while the Mk 118 Mod 1 only takes 0.5
seconds, allowing it to be used from the lower altitudes expected to be encountered in
combat against the now defunct Warsaw Pact.
The Mk 20 Mod 0 and Mk 20 Mod 1 were probably preliminary designs, but never
entered production. The Mk 20 Mod 2 was used by both the Navy and Air Force and was the
only Rockeye II lacking a fuze timer setting observation window for its Mk 339 Mod 0
fuze. It was also unique in having only a single fuze arming wire, which meant only the
4.0-second timer would function unless the fuze was manually reset to 1.2 seconds on the
ground. Finally, it was also the only version to use a hat box-shaped fuze cover on the
ground. Distinctive markings were a single three-inch wide, FSN 23538 or 33538 yellow
band, centered 102 inches aft of the nose fairing joint. Early production USAF Mk 20 Mod
2 bombs were overall FSN 24084 olive drab, while all subsequent Rockeye IIs were FSN
27875 white, with all having a 0.5-inch FSN 23638 or 33538 yellow semi-band over the top
half of the weapon to mark the center of balance.
The Mk 20 Mod 3 (Mk 7 Mod 3) was also used