11 Different Types Of Military Planes Explained

Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning
The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II at Stewart International Airport

Military planes fascinate people of all ages and instill a sense of awe with their capabilities and functionality. Since humans started using aircraft for military purposes, it has proven to be a significant part of a country’s defense strategies, with superiority in the air changing the course of wars.

The use of planes in the military has been the single most prominent driving force in the development of aviation since man started flying. The drive for militaries to have the edge over their main rivals has caused aviation technology to move forward at an unprecedented pace.

The advancement in flight dynamics and technology has seen the emergence of sophisticated and powerful flying machines. It has also resulted in aircraft development of many shapes and sizes, and some that you would never think would be capable of flight. Take a tour with us as we look at the fascinating world of these military flying machines.

An Aircraft For Every Military Purpose

Since the early days of crewed flight in balloons, people have contemplated the nations’ military advantage flying machines offer. Since those early days, aircraft have been created for an array of military functions, each with special characteristics that suit the aircraft’s role.

Military planes range from hot air balloons to helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. There is a military function suitable to each form of flying, and the military powers around the world have developed the technology in the field at a staggering rate.

Some of the aircraft’s functions in the military are combat, reconnaissance, transport, and enemy detection. We will examine some of these roles and the aircraft that were designed to fulfill these roles.

Reconnaissance Military Planes

Reconnaissance is the first role that manned flight took in the military. They were used as elevated observation points where commanders could have a birds-eye view of the battlefield and for spotters to direct artillery fire at the enemy.

1. Military Hot Air Balloons

Hot air balloons were used in wartime before the invention of fixed-wing aircraft and free-flight.

Hot air balloons were used as a military flying machine as early as 1794 by the French army.

Hot air balloons were used in this role by Napoleon in the 1850s and in the American civil war. They were used by the British army in their excursions into Africa and during the Second Boer War.

The Germans and the British used hot air balloons in the First World War for both observations and defense against attacking aircraft. The advent of fixed-wing aircraft quickly replaced the hot air balloon in the reconnaissance role.

2. Military Fixed-Wing Reconnaissance Planes

Fixed-wing aircraft capable of high-altitude flight and carrying a heavy payload of camera equipment and electronic surveillance equipment became the new reconnaissance aircraft for the military.

These panes are often called spy planes since the enemy may never even know they were present in the skies overhead due to the altitudes these planes could fly at and the range of their equipment. Reconnaissance planes incorporated aircraft of various types, such as floatplanes, commonly used in World War I to locate enemy warships.

3. Spy Planes

The US developed the Lockheed-U2 as one of the first sophisticated jet-powered reconnaissance aircraft, nicknamed the Dragon Lady. This aircraft was extensively used by the CIA in their cloak-and-dagger operations.

The Lockheed-U2 was superseded by the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, one of the most advanced reconnaissance aircraft of its time.

The Blackbird was a high-altitude, long-range plane that could achieve speeds above Mach-3. Its revolutionary shape was designed to reduce radar detection by the enemy while its onboard electronics and advanced cameras gathered intelligence on enemy military movements and targets.

4. Reconnaissance Helicopters

Helicopters have been used extensively in the observation and reconnaissance role for militaries around the world.

The Boeing MH-6M Little Bird, which was nicknamed the Killer Egg because of its egg-shaped fuselage, was extensively used by the US military in this role.

Another helicopter used extensively in the Iraq war is the Bell OH-58 Kiowa which performed in the role of observation and support of ground troops. The OH-58 is used by many countries in this role, including Australia, Canada, the USA, Greece, Austria, and Saudi Arabia.

Combat Military Planes

The role of aircraft in combat has changed the face of modern warfare, and many countries see the benefit of having dominance in the air as a high priority. As a result, much concentrated effort has gone into the development and advancement of these aircraft.

The dominance in the air was proven to play a significant role in the victory with the Battle of Britain, where the British Air Force battled the German Air force over the skies of Europe and prevailed, contributing towards cessation of hostilities.

5. Bomber Aircraft

Bombers were some of the first types of aircraft used in combat roles. Tiger Moth bi-planes were used to drop bombs on enemy installations, ships, and strategic installations.

The bombs dropped by these early bombers were often dropped manually by hand, using best-guess eyeballing as the targeting method.

Bombers are specifically designed to attack ground installations or troop positions and include targeting ships at sea.

The Handley Page Type O was a British biplane bomber that was used effectively during their campaigns in World War I and, at the time, was one of the largest aircraft in the world.

World War II saw great advancement in the technology around bombers. The payloads were greater, the aircraft more robust, and the targeting systems more accurate. This era saw the development of iconic bomber aircraft such as the British Avro Lancaster, the German Heinkel HE 177, and the US B-17 Flying Fortress. All these were heavy long-range bombers used extensively in this era.

Modern bombers are designed in various roles, from strategic bombers, which are heavy bombers, to tactical bombers, which are multi-role bombers to support ground troops.

The Russian Tupolev Tu-160 is an example of a long-range strategic bomber. In this role, the British used the Vickers Valiant and the iconic delta-wing Avro Vulcan. The USA employed the Rockwell B1-Lancer in this role as well as the Northrop B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.

Tactical bombers are generally short-range, low-altitude bombers that are used for fast tactical strikes against enemy ground positions or installations. They are often used in support of ground troops to devastate enemy positions. Tactical bombers are often multi-role aircraft that can be used as attack aircraft as well, targeting enemy aircraft.

The Panavia Tornado IDS is a German-manufactured tactical bomber that is used by many different countries. The French Mirage 2000D is another tactical bomber used by many different countries.

6. Fighter Or Attack Aircraft

Fighter aircraft are designed for aerial combat where they engage other aircraft in combat. They can be used for ground support, but their primary task is attacking other aircraft.

World War I became the era where aerial dogfighting began in earnest, where the capability of the aircraft and the pilot were pitted against enemy aircraft and pilots and where the flying aces were born.

Manfred von Richthofen, more commonly known by his nickname the Red Baron, was a well-known flying ace from World War I, who flew a series of German fighter planes, the Albatros D.II, the Albatros D.III, and the Halberstadt D.II aircraft, which were all bi-planes. However, his most famous aircraft was the Fokker Dr.I tri-plane, which had 3 main wings.

World War II saw the advancement and development of many fighter planes by many different protagonists in the war. The British developed the Hawker Hurricane, among others, and the iconic
Supermarine Spitfire, which has been the main contributor to winning the aerial battle over the skies of Britain against the German air force.

The Spitfire was a single-seat short-range intercept fighter that had revolutionary designs that gave it superior maneuverability in the air over any other aircraft of that era.

The Germans developed the Messerschmitt ME109, which was a highly advanced fighter plane that was the main rival of the Spitfire.

The main fighter planes out of the USA during World War II were the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, the Curtiss P-36 Hawk, and the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, among others.

7. Jet Fighter Planes

Towards the latter part of World War II, the US, Germany, and Britain launched their first jet-powered fighter planes. For Germany, it was the Messerschmitt ME 262, while for the British, the Gloster Meteor was the first jet fighter and the Lockheed P80 Shooting Star for the Americans.

After the war, Russia, America, and Britain continued to develop progressively more advanced fighter aircraft. This has led to the modern jet fighters that we see today.

The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning is a US-built jet fighter that is used by both the UK and the USA. The iconic General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon is another short-range fighter plane that is produced in the US but is flown by many nations, including Israel.

Russia has the Sukhoi Su-30 and the Mikoyan MiG-29K in the role of jet fighters. Many of the Russian fighter planes are developed as multi-role fighters.

8. Attack Helicopters

Helicopters began an active combat role in the Vietnam war, where the Bell UH-1 Iroquois, nicknamed the Huey, was converted to a gunship carrying large-caliber machine guns in support of ground troops and against ground targets.

Attack helicopters are not troop carriers but are usually 2-seater aircraft, with a pilot and a co-pilot, who also acts as the gunner. Attack helicopters have been used effectively in the role of anti-tank warfare, air-to-air combat against enemy aircraft, missile attacks on ground installations, and support of ground troops with machine guns.

Some of the most well-known attack helicopters include the Mil Mi-24P from Russia, known as the Hind, the Bell AH-1 Super Cobra, and the Boeing AH-64D Apache from the USA.

Other notable attack helicopters are the Eurocopter tiger developed in Germany and the Denel Rooivalk from South Africa.

9. Fighter-Bomber Aircraft

World War II instituted the development of multi-role aircraft, where resources were limited, and existing aircraft needed to be modified to perform multiple roles rather than single-use.

The first multi-role aircraft came into service in World War II, where aircraft slightly larger than fighters but smaller than bombers were used in the role of fighter-bombers. In this role, they carried a limited bomb payload but were agile enough to engage enemy aircraft and attack ground targets.

Some of the more notable fighter-bombers from this time frame included the feared Stuka, formally named the Junkers Ju-87, made in Germany. The Stuka was a dive-bomber, recognizable by its distinctive gull-wings.

The screaming sirens mounted on the undercarriage were an effective propaganda tactic that struck fear into all those who heard the sirens as the Stuka’s began their diving attack. The Stuka also performed service as close air support for bombers and in an anti-shipping role.

The US produced the Mustang P150 in the fighter bomber role and the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. The aircraft tasked with the role in Britain were the de Havilland Mosquito and the Bristol Beaufighter.

The Spitfire was sometimes used in the role, carrying a 500-pound bomb under the fuselage and a 250 pound bomb under each wing.

Most modern jetfighters are multipurpose, or multi-role, able to carry bombs, torpedos, air-to-air missiles, and machine guns.

Military Transport Planes

Military transport aircraft came into their own in the Second World War, where armies benefited from moving troops and equipment via air transport. The technology was also available at this time to build aircraft large enough and strong enough to transport large volumes of troops and cargo.

10. Fixed-Wing Military Transport Planes

Fixed-wing transport aircraft became a means to deliver troops and supply troops in the field quickly and effectively. Air-dropping troops by parachute became a way to quickly reinforce troops on the frontlines without the need for hours or days of road travel.

Troops could even be dropped behind enemy lines to attack strategic installations to cripple the enemy’s operations.

The ability to drop supplies, machinery, jeeps, and artillery pieces made it possible to advance faster than ever before to gain a strategic advantage.

One of the instrumental aircraft in this role was the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, also known as the Dakota. This aircraft originated in the United States but was utilized by many countries around the world.

In Germany, the Junkers JU-52 and 53 was the workhorse troop and cargo carriers. The Messerschmitt Me 323 Gigant was a large heavy-duty, long-range transport aircraft for Germany.

Modern military transport aircraft have become bigger and better and can now transport entire tanks and other aircraft in their massive holds.

The Russian Antonov An-124 Ruslan, or Condor, and the Ilyushin II-76, are massive transport aircraft that typify the impressive carrying capability of modern military transport aircraft.

Western equivalents of these two monsters are the Lockheed Martin C-5M Super Galaxy and the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III from the USA. The Globemaster can carry an M1A2 Abrams tank or 3 Apache attack helicopters in its massive belly.

11. Military Transport Helicopters

Helicopters have become heavy lifters in the military world and have the advantage of not needing a runway to get troops, supplies, and gear on the ground.

Helicopters can be small enough to transport small strike teams or large enough to deliver 55 troops or 10-tonnes of cargo.

One of the most famous transport helicopters is the iconic CH-47F Chinook which was introduced to the US military in 1961, and the same basic model of the aircraft is still in service today around the world. The Chinook is often deployed as a field hospital to medevac wounded soldiers from the battlefront or as a troop carrier, paratroop carrier, battle equipment transport, and search and rescue operations.

Some of the large cargo or transport military helicopters include the Mil Mi-26 from Russia, which has the same carrying capacity as the fixed-wing Hercules C-130, and the CH-53K King Stallion, which serves in the United States military.


Military aircraft are an ever-changing breed of flying machines, and they will continue to evolve as the available technology allows.

There is no doubt that a strong flying force can make the difference for military superiority in a region, as shown by many recent military campaigns.

As these military flying machines evolve and develop, we will continue to admire their capabilities and stand in awe of their raw beauty!

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