The Force in the US Air Force

By Mets, David R. | Aerospace Power Journal, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

The Force in the US Air Force


Mets, David R., Aerospace Power Journal


Fodder for Your Professional Reading on the Implements of Strategy and Tactics for Conventional Air War

Editorial Abstract: As a former editor and frequent contributor to APJ, Dr Dave Mets is one of our most recognized and popular authors. In another of his now famous 'fodder" articles, he again offers readers an overview and recommended readings on a topic of professional interest. For this installment, he has chosen the evolution of Air Force weaponry. This is more than just a litany of technology, as Dr. Mets explores related issues of tactics, doctrine, force structure, and so forth. As weapons get smarter and we contemplate arming unmanned aerial vehicles and moving missions to space platforms, the reader should, as the title suggests, consider the very nature of what it may mean to be an air ' force. "

YOU MAY HAVE noticed previous "Fodder" articles in the Aerospace Power Journal. In them we have sought to give you some tools to help you plan and execute your own professional reading programs. Most of them dealt with subjects unfamiliar to many air warriors/ scholars and addressed new books in that field. One looked at naval aviation and another at the Pacific dimensions of World War II, based on the theory that modern airmen were more familiar with the air war against Germany. Here, I aim to acquaint you with the most prominent conventional air weapons that are the Force in US Air Force and, during that process, review a new book on the development of one of the most famous aerial weapons of all time-the Sidewinder missile. Not until the 24th year of my service as a flyer was I assigned to an aircraft-the AC-130that had any lethal weapons at all. After giving the matter some thought, I concluded that that experience may have been more typical than otherwise and thus decided to write a "Fodder" article on the weapons of airmen and their acquirement. Typical of this series, this piece concludes with a sampler of 10 books that will enhance the expertise of air warriors/scholars in the tools of their trade.

The Era of Converted Guns and Shells

Lt Col Isaac Newton Lewis, US Army, first demonstrated the use of his lightweight machine gun from an American aircraft in 1912. Actually, Lewis had envisioned his weapon for use by soldiers on the move-not as an aircraft weapon-because the Maxim gun had proved too heavy for mobile infantry. The Marine Corps had adopted Lewis's gun before the outbreak of World War I, but when leathernecks arrived in France, our forces needed a lighter aircraft weapon so badly that Gen John J. Pershing required the Marines to give it up to the Air Service. The Lewis gun went on to serve in flexible installations on practically all Allied aircraft throughout the war and well beyond, getting its last kill as a ground gun against a German V-1 buzz bomb in 1944.1

The story was the same for most of the fixed-gun installations on the Allied side-- even among their enemies. Long before, Hiram Maxim had designed the machine gun, which, along with the steamboat, enabled the imperialistic drive that conquered Africa in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Both the Allied Vickers and the German Spandau aircraft machine guns-standard weapons on both sides-derived from the Maxim design, as did the ground guns. The latter comprised part of the technological explanation for the defensive stalemate on the ground.2

Similarly, bombs dropped from aircraft in World War I were at first adaptations from artillery rounds or projectiles rejected for use in ground guns. Explosive shells, an old idea, had seen a good deal of improvement since the American Civil War. In the early days, aircrews threw the weapons, now sporting fins and necessarily light, overboard.3 Only later did they attach them to simple bomb racks or sometimes even put them in internal bomb bays. The fully mature technology for the fuzes, filler, and bomb casing did not call for intensive research and development programs for many years thereafter-especially since both the internal combustion engine and aerodynamics remained on the steep parts of their development curves, crying out for heavy investments. …

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