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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

aircraft performance).

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

Cluster bombs


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

February 1991.

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