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"Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far."
The United States military is the strongest and most effective military on the planet. This is partially because America pours a lot of money into its armed forces, more than its top ten closest competitors combined. Partially it's because this large R&D budget allows American soldiers to stay on the bleeding edge of technological advancement. And it's partially because their military is well-rounded: other nations may beat them in one area (the Chinese With Chopper Support, for instance, is larger) but fall short in other areas (less logistical mobility, less-modern/advanced equipment and significantly less naval and aerial support).
The American military has six component branches:
The United States Army is the largest branch of the American armed forces by numbers, with over half a million active duty troops, plus the six hundred thousand Reservists and National Guardsmen (part-time troops, except when they are deployed to serve with the full-timers). In addition to infantry, the Army has HMMWV's (AKA the "Humvee", not to be confused with the very similar "FunVee"), trucks, armored cars and trucks, armored cavalry, helicopters, and artillery. Surprisingly enough, they even operate a few airplanes, but mostly only small transport and utility planes.
The United States Navy is the largest navy in the world. The USN also has 11 full-length aircraft carriers (the Enterprise and the ten Nimitz-class carriers), which is more carriers than every other navy on earth, combined. All of them are individually larger then any other carrier in foreign service. Then we throw in the Harrier-capable Wasp- and Tarawa-class Amphibious Assault Ships (which are not full-length and carry much smaller air wings), and then we throw in the Trident SSBNs, and bake at 350 degrees for a really dangerous navy. There's even a few destroyers and cruisers around for seasoning. (Actually, there's more of them than the other ones, but they're old news and can't project force the same way an aircraft carrier or submarine can.) In the 21st century, their continual presence on the high seas and at ports of call all over the world has made them one of the most visible and consistent projections of US global power, even in "peacetime," and has put them in a very active role fighting pirates, terrorists, and other threats to international seagoing trade, very much in the way that the British Royal Navy has done since the 18th Century.
The United States Marine Corps are part of the Department of the Navy, but operates fairly independently. In addition to infantry, they have many of the same resources as the Army and Air Force, (armored vehicles, tanks, artillery, helicopters, and jets) just not as many of them. They do tend to practice combined-arms more cohesively in smaller units than the Army and Air Force, down to battalion-level or smaller, which makes even small Marine units very tough, pound-for-pound. The Marine Corps is the smallest ("only" 200,000 of them), but arguably the most motivated, branch of the US Armed Forces. All this fits with the current role of the Marines in US military doctrine: beyond the amphibious assault it implies, the Marines are the ones called upon in the opening phases of any major military operation, clearing the way for the Army. It has been said that while the other branch's recruiting campaigns tell the prospective recruits about the training, benefits, money, education, etc., the Marines' recruiting campaign primarily promises the recruit the chance to try to become a Marine; the Marines have a reputation as memetic badasses in American society, almost thought to be on a par with the special forces (and arguably better known to most Americans).
The United States Air Force has over 4,000 manned aircraft and a massive proportion of the US's Superior Firepower, and is also making increased use of unmanned vehicles as well (much to the chagrin of its pilots). The US Air Force is very good at its job. Since its founding in 1947 (when it was split off from the Army), not a single American soldier has even so much as been wounded by an enemy aircraft in any war since. The USAF is also one of the only air forces in the world with truly stealth aircraft. Did we mention they fight In Space? (No, they haven't sent up a pilot to punch out a Cosmonaut. Yet.) In fact, with the Air Force taking responsibility for defense of computer networks as well as assets in space, its mission has been partially re-branded as "preserving the freedom of access and commerce," in the air, space, and cyberspace. Amongst the various branches of the US Armed Forces, the Air Force has the most laid back image, owing to the relatively egalitarian way the enlisted and commissioned ranks interact: most of the front-line combat in the Air Force is done by the officers, an inverse of how it is done on the ground, and that operation of the larger aircraft often involves close cooperation amongst a small mixed crew of officers and enlisted men.
The United States Coast Guard is officially part of the Department of Homeland Security in peacetime. In wartime, they switch over to the Department of Defense. They're also a federal regulatory agency. In any case, they do both military and law enforcement. Specifically, the Coast Guard handles things such as maintaining aids to navigation, marine safety, both military and civilian search and rescue, port security, and maritime interception operations. They can also provide law enforcement expertise to other branches (for example, when the Navy is going after pirates). In WWII, the Coast Guard manned destroyers and landing craft. Recently, they signed an agreement with the Navy allowing a limited number of Coast Guardsmen to serve with the SEALs.
The National Guard is a reserve made up of each state's organized militia, and includes both Army (Army National Guard) and Air Force (Air National Guard) units that can be mobilized by their respective state governments or "federalized" by the U.S. Department of Defense. Like each service's individual and organized reservists, the National Guard is made up of ordinary citizens (including veterans of active-duty Air Force and Army service) who, after having completed intensive basic and advanced training, serve one weekend a month plus two weeks a year -- hence the nickname "weekend warriors" (also used for reservists). As troops of their respective state governments, they're primarily employed in peacetime for the suppression of civil disorder (the Army is legally barred from doing this) and assistance in handling natural disasters, but are relied upon by the Army and the Air Force both as combat forces and support elements in time of war.
In addition to the National Guard, there are 27 active State Defense Forces which serve as separate state militias. They operate with the Governor as their commander-in-chief. Typically, have the same duties as the National Guard, such as the suppression of civil disorder and the handling natural disasters. Unlike the National Guard, the state defense forces cannot be federalized without consent of the state's governor and sometimes legislature. This is because they're meant to provide the governor with a trained military force when the state's National Guard units are deployed elsewhere. Members with prior service experience retain their ranks and can advance in grade as awarded by the state, so the rank structure is somewhat inflated with the idea that they'll form a trained unit cadre (core) should a worst case scenario happen. During WWII and the Cold War, they were expected to defend their states from foreign invasion, but today they serve to help respond to national security issues, and are generally trained to be equal to their National Guard counterparts. The actual results vary with each state due to funding, local culture, local needs and interests. Many are starting to be put their paces with this recent spate of natural disasters, and so far have been doing a fair job of it. Many of their members and usually all of their senior leadership are veterans of the regular military, reserve, or National Guard.
The United States Special Operations Command is technically not a branch of the US Armed Forces but is rather one joint "Unified Combat Command." USSOCOM (the namesake of the video games) has control over all deployed Special Operations Forces units, regardless of what branch or organization they stem from. The list includes but is not limited to: Army Special Forces (the "Green Berets"), Delta Force (technically an "operational detachment" of Special Forces), Army Rangers, the Navy's SEAL (SEa, Air, Land) Teams, US Air Force Special Operations, Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC), and many other groups not as well known. They also partner with intelligence agencies like the CIA (which has its own Special Activities Division), and many of these units cross-train with each other or attach to other US or allied military units as the mission demands. Also, the Secretary of Defense has the power to grant USSOCOM total control of all Special Operations Forces units, usually in cases of open war.
Responsibilities roughly break down as follows:
- The Army primarily fights on the land, supplying the infantrymen and mechanized firepower the Marine Corps cannot (see below). However, Army Rangers are expected to be capable of deploying anywhere in the world within 48 hours notice, making them, in addition to the Marines' Expeditionary Forces, first responders. The Army is considered the main land-based fighting force for the United States.
- The Navy primarily fights on or under the seas.
- The Air Force primarily fights in the sky. Air Force personnel are often tasked with providing close air support for infantry engagements, as well as maintaining air superiority in a given zone. The Air Force also has control over a large number of the United States' nuclear arsenal.
- The Air Force is also responsible for most American military space assets (communications and GPS, for example), as well as their defense if they come under threat.
- The Marine Corps are a fast-responding multipurpose branch, with integrated air, land, and sea elements. At any given moment, two Marine Expeditionary Forces are at sea and ready to deploy at a word. Basically, they're often among the first military troops formally deployed into a zone. Marines, as their name would imply, specialize in amphibious warfare.
- The Coast Guard acts as a maritime law enforcement agency, with jurisdiction in both domestic and international waters.
- The National Guard acts as a reserve force in addition to the Army and Air Force's own reserves. In peacetime, they are primarily used to suppress civil disorder (the Army is legally barred from doing this, but National Guard are technically state militia and therefore have the authority to perform those tasks) and provide assistance in handling natural disasters.
- USSOCOM's various special forces handle missions like counter-terrorism, hostage rescue, unconventional warfare, reconnaissance, infiltration, "direct action" (raids), and search and rescue. Soldiers from SOCOM, normally the Army's Special Forces operatives and Navy SEALs, are generally the first military troops to enter into a country before invasion, normally arriving before hostilities even begin. SOCOM troops are also trained in such actions as militia training and providing rebels with the expertise and firepower to successfully revolt against the current regime.
America currently practices "asymmetrical warfare," which involves exploiting Tactical Rock-Paper-Scissors and "Attack Its Weak Point" strategies to maximize effectiveness. "Asymmetrical Warfare" is a natural evolution of the military doctrines formulated after the American Civil War, which caused the brass to realize they'd rather expend money and material than lives.
See, in the past, a lot of wars involved situations where two sides were "symmetrical" in composition, being endowed with roughly equal equipment, disposition and manpower (read: "reserves"). Under those circumstances, whoever was the better commander would generally win, but in the meanwhile a lot of death and blood happened. Today, America fights pragmatically, lowering American casualties by exposing as few of them as possible to (effective) enemy fire—that is, If they can hurt you, don't attack them, call someone else to hit them who can do so with impunity. With that in mind, there's a lot of cross-communication in an American war: if the enemy's trying to attack your weak point, you can (and should) call for help from whichever branch of the armed forces would be the best counter. (Think the Transformers movie: Army calling for help from Air Force; Air Force calling for help from... Giant transforming robots, giant transforming robots calling for help from Action Survivors played by Shia LaBeouf, and Action Survivors calling for help from the Army.)
A statistic will say anything if you torture it hard enough, but the guesses are that there have been between 1.7 and 2.7 million Americans casualties in war, varying by your definition of "casualties" (do non-lethal injuries count?), "war" (does the Bay of Pigs invasion count?) and "Americans" (what about stuff during the Thirteen-Colonies period?). Dating from 1776 and taking the largest figure, that works out to an average of 11,500 deaths a year. (In comparison, since the 1980s about 40,000 Americans have been killed per year in car crashes.)
Carriers For Wagner: American Military Vehicles
American military vehicles have been widely exported, sometimes after previous use--the General Belgrano, an Argentine Navy light cruiser sunk by the British in the Falklands War, had been an American light cruiser (the USS Phoenix [CL 46]). The most notable not mentioned in Peace Through Superior Firepower are:
Light Utility Vehicles
- The Willys MB (and identical twin Ford GPW), known better around the world as the Jeep. Standard light vehicle of World War II and used for quite a while after that, it was and still is also widely purchased by civilians. The US Lend-Lease sent over 50,000 Willys Jeeps to Russia alone, and for decades after "Willys" was a Russian slang term for light truck.
- For further reference, the M-38/CJ-5 which entered service in 1952 and the market for 1955 was the last Jeep model designed for both military and civilian purposes.
- The HMMWV (High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, Humvee or Hummer). Designed as a replacement for the Willys MB, but its chassis has been pressed into many, many other roles as well--not as glamorous as it sounds, because the HMMWV has no protection from land mines or IEDs. Its extreme width (designed to prevent rollovers, a common problem with the Jeeps) poses a major problem in dense urban or wooded environments, too.
- A slimmer civvie version (H1) was previously available. Very much a gas guzzler, so much so that it ran afoul of California fuel economy standards. A hydrogen-fueled version has seen limited use (the H2H).
- The Oshkosh M-ATV is an up-and-coming replacement to the HMMWV, designed to be everything from the outset that the Humvee wasn't--the M in M-ATV means MRAP, which means ... Mine Resistant Ambush Protected. Yeah, they really got the hint about the Humvee's main weakness.
- What is kind of scary is that this things looks like the EDF Jeep from Red Faction: Guerilla
- Or perhaps the EDF Jeep looks like the M-ATV!
Infantry Fighting Vehicles
- The M2 Bradley is the current primary infantry fighting vehicle for the US Army. Designed to be able to carry up to six troops and be able to keep up with the M1 Abrams, the Bradley has played a key role in American mechanized warfare. Built as an answer to the Russian BMP, the Bradley is capable of carrying and supporting troops as well as engaging enemy armor. The Bradley is armed with a 25 mm chain gun, TOW missiles, and firing ports for the troops inside. However, it is an aging design and the Army is currently looking for a replacement.
- Firing ports have been phased out, as well as the Bradley kicking a whole ton of ass for an 'aging design'
- The Stryker is a new family of armored combat vehicles that seek to replace the US Army's older vehicles. The Stryker is an embodiment the US armed forces' new emphasis on speed, deployability, and utility. Capable of carrying up to 9 troops, the Stryker provides much need protection and combat support, yet is small and light enough to be carried on a standard C-130. It can also be modified for a number of specialized uses such as artillery support, mobile command vehicle, ambulance, and reconaissance. The tradeoff for this speed and deployability is significantly less armor than its heavier cousins, but thanks to armor upgrades it is more than capable of taking whatever is thrown at it.
- The M1 Abrams' is America's main battle tank. It was born of a resolve to not repeat the horrific American tanker casualties of WWII due to sacrificing ten inferior tanks to destroy a single German one--especially if they were going to defend bottlenecks in West Germany like the Fulda Gap and Hof Corridor during the Cold War from the inexpensive and even more numerous Chinese and Soviet tanks. That's why the first iteration of the Abrams, rolled out in 1981, had features like Chobham composite laminate armor, a FLIR sensor suite (very expensive for the time), laser rangefinder and ballistic computer. It got the last piece of its original wish list with the M1A1, replacing the older 105mm main gun with the German Rheinmetall 120mm/L44 smoothbore main gun.
The Abrams is powered by a jet engine. It's so fast that the Army puts a governor on the engine to keep them from speeding. With the governor removed, it can reach 60 mph on a decent road--even though it weighs 68 tons. That's putting the "lightning" in Lightning Bruiser. Unfortunately, this means it's also a gas guzzler (roughly 1 gallon per mile, and it takes 10 gallons just to start the engine), and its speed leads to problems like having an entire Abrams unit run out of fuel and wait for five hours for fuel trucks to arrive. Oops ...
In a nonfiction book of his (Armored Cav), Tom Clancy recounted a story of an Abrams tank in the Gulf War. Having been immobilized by an enemy shot while deep in hostile territory, the crew of the tank found themselves in what military experts would call "a crappy situation". In the space of thirty seconds or so the immobilized tank destroyed four enemy tanks, two of which got shots off, hitting the tank but completely bouncing off of its proprietary DU-laced armor. When reinforcements arrived they decided it was too much trouble to lug the tank back, and decided to destroy it on site. The American tanks took turns shooting another 8 or 9 times before the turret was penetrated, detonating the ammo stocks--which had little effect due to the blowout hatches installed. The tank's turret was taken back to the US for analysis while the chassis was refit with another turret and returned to action in a week. This tank's a God-damned "Battlemech".
- In another example contained in David Zucchino's book, Thunder Run: The Armored Strike to Capture Baghdad, one of the Abrams was disabled by enemy fire. Forces attempting to destroy it on-site set off thermite grenades in the main hatch, detonating both the explosives and the ammunition stored in the tank. This was followed by the tank receiving a HEAT round from another Abrams, and then an AGM Maverick anti-armor missile, as well as two AGM Hellfire missiles were fired via gunship into the tank. The end result? The interior of the tank was demolished, but its armor and exterior appeared relatively unharmed. That's some serious armor.
- The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber was the star of the massed bomb attacks the Air Corps flew over Germany and occupied territories (as depicted rather accurately in Memphis Belle). There they were, hundreds of fat, juicy sitting ducks for the German anti-aircraft crews, not even bothering to try evasive maneuvers (which would throw them off course from their target). But the B-17 had an almost mythic ability to withstand damage and keep flying. Every B-17 crew member had at least one story of returning to base safely without a vertical tail, or with half a wing blown off, or on one engine, etc. etc.
- The B-24 Liberator was the other US heavy bomber of WWII. While not as pretty or famous as the B-17 the B-24 could carry a larger bomb load faster and farther was more numerous (with about 6,000 more built). Of course the lighter structure and unusual Davis wing that gave it that performance edge also made it a more fragile aircraft, with far less stories of B-24s coming home with big chunks missing. This seemed to have a deleterious effect on its popularity.
- The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt was the largest single-engine fighter of World War II, known as the "Jug" on account of its shape. Gained 3,752 air-to-air kills (3,499 were lost to all causes). Seriously, seriously rugged. One pilot, Robert S. Johnson, sustained serious damage to his aircraft over France on 26 June 1943--including a fire. Unable to open his canopy, he managed to regain control. He heads for the channel, then gets a German FW-190 fighter (probably ace Egon Mayer, who was killed by another Thunderbolt after reaching 102 kills) arrive and empty his entire machine-gun capacity at the American pilot, who tries to move around a bit, but doesn't really succeed. The aircraft still stays going and the German leaves, saluting him by rocking his wings. Johnson gets back to the UK, lands safely and counts the bullet holes. After getting to 200 without even moving around the aircraft--he gave up. Seriously.
- The North American P-51 Mustang is a fighter aircraft that must be mentioned any time you are talking about anything concerning WWII US aircraft. This beast went from proposal to flying prototype in under four months--a tremendous feat of engineering. The laminar-flow airfoil wing reduced drag and gave it outstanding high altitude performance when married to the high-performance supercharged Rolls Royce Merlin engine, which could get the Mustang up to 437 mph and up to 41,900 ft. It flew like a dream and could fly an escort mission to Berlin and Back, plus a dogfight or two. It was the main aircraft of the Tuskegee Airmen, who used it to great effect; having a red-tailed Mustang escort you meant you were gonna live. Mustangs claimed the highest amount of air-to-air kills by any Allied fighter in WWII (nearly 5,000) and lost about 2,520 of their number--almost a two-to-one kill ratio. Cadillac of the Skies indeed.
- The last Mustang in US military service was decomissioned in the late 1950's. The last Mustang in military service anywhere in the world was retired from the Dominican Air Force in 1984.
- The kill ratio for an fighter is not necessarily a good indicator of its utility as a weapon; P-51s were largely devoted to escorting bomber missions, rather than carrying out air-to-air combat sweeps, which limited their ability to carry through on engagements with enemy aircraft. The F 6 F Hellcat, used by the Navy and Marines during WWII, flew 66,530 combat sorties (45% of all fighter sorties of the war) and destroyed 5,163 (56% of all Naval/Marine air victories of the war) at a cost of 270 Hellcats (an overall kill-to-loss ratio of 19:1).
- Leave us not forget the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. It was originally meant to be a short-range, heavily armed interceptor - a flying anti-aircraft gun, if you will. Lockheed was initially planning on a limited run of the planes (based on the initial proposal, they expected that they would be constructing a mere 50 Lightnings), but the Air Force was suitably impressed with the performance of the prototype XP- and YP-38s that they saw fit to expand both its role in the war and the number of Lightnings to be constructed. In addition to becoming one of the first truly multi-role fighter planes - while its primary role was escort and interception, it also took part in dive-bombing, level-bombing, ground-attack, and photo-reconaissance missions - it was also the plane used to "get Yamamoto".
Fourth Generation Jet Fighters
In the 60's, the Pentagon decided to take a new tactic in its aircraft design and deployment. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was an avid fan of "joint-service" solutions, feeling that standardizing around a single type significantly reduced development costs (the same philosophy was used in the adoption of the M-16 assault rifle). During the third generation, a single workhorse fighter, the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, emerged as Jack of All Stats of American airspace, and was deployed by the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines over the skies of Vietnam in just about every mission imaginable. It was even flown by both the Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels. Unfortunately, all this combat fielding just led to the fighter's weak points (and it had plenty of them) becoming exposed more quickly. In addition, rumors out of Moscow told of the upcoming Mi G-25 Foxbat, and the accompanying grainy photographs suggested a very fast and very maneuverable aircraft .
This being the military, attempts to rectify this progressed in several different directions at once. The most immediate, cheapest, and arguably most effective was the establishment of the Red Flag (Air Force) and TOPGUN (Navy) flight schools (yes, that Top Gun), teaching aviators how to defend against aircraft with vastly different flight characteristics (such as the subsonic-yet-agile Mi G's that had been the bane of the Phantom). The second was the "Tactical Fighter eXperiment" program, intended to produce a single fighter which could outfly and outfight the Phantom, serving the Navy as a high-altitude interceptor launched from carriers and the Air Force as a low-level attack aircraft launched from runways. Both services had enough brains to realize that any plane capable of doing both missions at once would have to be made of lollipops and pixie dust, and begged to just open a program for individual planes, but McNamara pushed the program through. The resulting aircraft, the F-111 Aardvark, fulfilled the Air Force's requirements well enough, but the Navy version was too heavy to land on carrier decks and did not enter service.
This left openings on Navy and Air Force runways for a fighter/interceptor which could shoot down high-altitude Soviet bombers at long ranges (IE, "win World War III"). To fill them, the Navy and Air Force were finally allowed to open separate programs (VFX at sea, FX on land) for large, powerful air-superiority aircraft, yielding the F-14 Tomcat (Navy) and the F-15 Eagle (USAF). This led to the Lightweight Fighter program. A number of aviators and aircraft designers felt that the Tomcat and Eagle were too large to be agile dogfighters, and that the expensive radar systems made them too expensive to risk in tricky operations. (Nobody cared about the F-111.) In addition, quite a few of the previous generation of "strike fighters" had been lost to attrition in Vietnam (including half of the production-run-of-800 F-105 Thunderchief's). Long story short, the Air Force wanted something small and cheap to fill their strike squadrons with--something that could be thrown at high-risk targets with impunity, do a bit of light dogfighting on the side, and maybe (due to the lack of high-tech avionics) tear it up on the export market, helping defray the large R&D costs. While originally the LWF program was Air Force only, winning them the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the Navy found the losing plane to their liking, and modified the YF-17 into the F/A-18 Hornet of today.
The original intent was a winged version of Sword and Sorcerer: the big beefy air-superiority fighters (F-14s and F-15s) would sweep the skies while the smaller strike fighters (F-16s and F/A-18s) slid in to pound ground targets and engage in close-range dogfights as necessary. This later became muddled, as micronized avionics made the "little" planes effective air-superiority fighters in their own right, and improved radars made effective strike fighters out of the big planes. But the end result are four classic American fighters, three of which are still in service today.
(The Phantom was finally retired from American service in 1996; highly specialized F-4G variants replaced the F-105 Thunderchief in the suppression of enemy air defenses role, until improved electronics and stores management allowed the "Wild Weasel" package to fit onto "vanilla" fighers. As for the Aardvark, it didn't hit Air Force runways until 1976--at which point the F-14 had already been flying for two years. America put it out to pasture in '98; its only foreign operator, Aussies With Artillery, kept it around until December 2010.)
- The Grumman F-14 Tomcat, the Navy's version of the air-superiority fighter, was a carrier-based interceptor that was famous for starring in Top Gun. It was retired in 2006 in favor of the Super Hornet. Designed to defend US carrier groups against bomber attack, it acquired an air-to-ground role late in its career, taking on the nickname "Bombcat" as it did so. The fighter's calling card are its "variable geometry" or "swing" wings, which (controlled by onboard computers) move back and forth from almost-straight-sideways to way-swept-back depending on how fast the plane is trying to go. The F-14 project took many of its parts and pieces from the cancelled F-111B, including its engines, its missiles, and it's swing-wing configuration. The plane was in fact built around the ability to fire the F111-B's AIM-54 Phoenix long range air-to-air missile. The US never actually shot anything down with that missile (it was designed for use against Russian bombers), but the sole country to which the F-14 was exported has made use of it. Shortly after delivery, that country had a revolution and is now quite hostile to the United States. That's right, we sold Tomcats to Iran.
Sadly, this fact was partially what motivated the Department of Defense to not only retire the Tomcat but to completely destroy nearly all the retired planes, in order to ensure that Iran doesn't have access to the parts needed to maintain their own F-14 fleet. There are rumors that Corrupt Corporate Executives may be supplying them with smuggled scraps to replace what can't be repaired.
- The McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle, the USAF counterpart to the Tomcat, is one of the world's best air superiority fighters: in over thirty years of service, there has been no  case of an F-15 shot down by a real enemy in an air-to-air engagement, while its various operators have taken down precisely 101 opposing aircraft with it. (The F-15E Strike Eagle is a different story, but it's not the same kind of bird.) Its detractors call it the "Aluminum Tennis Court" for its size, as well as "the triumph of thrust over aerodynamics". It also has the more dubious honor of being the (original) disguise of The Starscream.
- The General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon is the Air Force's version of the light fighter. The first combat aircraft to use true fly-by-wire controls, the "Viper" (as its pilots call it) has been the workhorse of the Air Force since the early 80's (during the first Gulf War, the F-16 was used in more sorties than any other Coalition aircraft), and is scheduled to remain in service until the 2020's. It's so versatile that's its also found homes among many foreign air forces. It can be configured as an interceptor, an air superiority fighter, a strike aircraft, or a close support aircraft, and does all these jobs well. It is the current vehicle for the Air Force's Thunderbirds. The F-16 was featured heavily in the Iron Eagle series of films, which could be a positive or a negative, depending on what you think of those movies, and stars in the Falcon series of brain-breakingly realistic flight sims.
- A note on Fly-By-Wire: most aircraft are designed with "positive" "aerodynamic stability," which means that if you let go of the steering wheel, the plane's shape will cause it to drift back into a straight-line heading. The F-16 on the other hand was deliberately designed with aerodynamic instability; left to its own devices, it will drift out of a straight-line heading. The FBW computer prevents this by making constant minute adjustments to flaps, ailerons and rudder, which keeps the plane going in the (last) direction its pilot told it to. Why all this trouble? Once you tell the F-16 to turn, it's off like a rocket; the F-16 can outfly most competitors (a serious advantage in Old School Dogfighting) and even its own pilots, who will have passed out from G-forces long before the airframe reaches structural tolerance. In the 21st Century, fly-by-wire is a universal design feature of fighter aircraft, but it was created for the F-16 three decades before they showed up.
- The McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet is the Navy's and Marine Corps' lightweight air superiority/strike aircraft. (Neither it nor the F-16 is really a bomber, per se: a true bomber's job is really about carpet bombing, and these planes can't even carry that many munitions. Instead, they do pinpoint strikes on invididual targets.) Like the Falcon, it has served with distinction since being introduced. Like the Falcon, it is also a true workhorse (and has a very high availability due to the designer making "ease of maintenance" a priority) and is even replacing the F-14 at its own job of air combat. It is the current platform for the Navy's Blue Angels, and was the aircraft of choice for the movie Independence Day.
- The Boeing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, despite the name, is largely a different airframe from the original Hornet, being 20% larger and considerably heavier (Carrier personnel refer to it as the "Rhino" to avoid confusion). It was designed to replace, or "neck down," a number of specialized aircraft carrying out missions the original Hornet couldn't manage, as well as replace the costly and aging F-14 Tomcat. Currently the top dog among American carrier aircraft, and will be until the F-35C sees widespread use. The Marine Corps have avoided the Super Hornet like the plague, fearing that adoption will cut into funds for the troubled F-35B STOVL variant.
Fifth Generation Jet Fighters
- The Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor is the world's first combat-ready Fifth Generation fighter, designed during the Cold War in anticipation of newer aircraft being produced by emerging superpowers like Russia and China. The F-22 Raptor is loaded down with the latest aerospace technologies including stealth, thrust vectoring, supercruise (the ability to break the sound barrier without the use of afterburners), as well as the most advanced avionics available. Like the Eagle, the Raptor is designed to be a pure air superiority fighter, and in simulated exercises, it has been shown that a dozen F-22s can shoot down hundreds of aircraft without a single loss. Simulated dogfights have also shown that America's current premier air superiority fighter, the F-15, can't even touch the F-22. Currently, the Raptor's only apparent disadvantage is its astronomical building cost, which is approximately $138 million, each.
- There's been a lot of debate about whether or not the F-22 is really needed. Detractors claim that the trend of recent wars (specifically, the runaway success of the whole "asymmetrical warfare" thing, in which enemy aircraft are simply bombed to bits before they take off) means there will never be a need for an air-superiority fighter ever again, so why are we spending gajillions of dollars on aircraft that will basically never fight the battle it was designed to? Recent information on the F-22's contenders (such as the Russian PAK FA) suggest that they'll cost about as much as the F-22, though; we may be out of money, but at least everyone else will be too. And, like the F-15 before it, the F-22 can adapt to other missions, despite the "not one pound for air-to-ground" philosophy shared by both planes.
- Members of the Armchair Military also enjoy "discussing" whether the F-22's combat simulations were accurate, as opposed to being rigged to make the F-22 look good. Of course, the whole point of asymmetrical warfare is to rig the fight so that America looks good, so maybe the sims are accurate because they were rigged. Besides, while a hundreds-to-zero win/loss record looks Beyond the Impossible, the F-15 already achieved that in Real Life, without the help of whatever Corrupt Corporate Executive or Government Conspiracy is (supposedly) shilling for the Raptor. Suffice it to say that the debate is ongoing. (And, because the Raptor may never shoot down another plane, will possibly never be answered.)
- The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, aka the Joint Strike Fighter. A new multirole fighter, co-produced with the UK, and several other nations. It's a return to McNamara's ideal of a single plane serving all branches of the armed forces, and has three different variants: a standard version for the Air Force, a carrier based version for the Navy, and a vertical take off/landing version for the Marine Corps. Like the F-22, it has limited stealth capability. The USAF intends for the F-35 to fill the "workhorse ground-attach machine" niche the F-16 filled in the Fourth Generation, with the F-22 replacing the F-15 the same way. Hasn't actually deployed yet, and recent reports have been very pessimistic, with extensive cost overruns (it may ultimately exceed the F-22 in per-unit cost) and continued issues with the V/STOL F-35B variant (it has less parts commonality than the other two, making it much more expensive; the Pentagon has threatened to cancel this variant).
- By "hasn't actually deployed yet," we mean that nobody is actually sure when it will enter service, though it won't be until after 2016. A number of significant design flaws were identified as late as November 2011: the tailhook doesn't work, meaning it can't actually land on aircraft carriers; engaging afterburners can cause heat damage to the airframe; and the operating system for the onboard computer is nowhere near complete. It's thought that, before the jet is retired, more than $1 trillion will be sunk into it--though to be fair it's intended to still be in service in the 2060s, and Congress hopes to defray part of the costs by selling the F-35 to other countries.
- And no, we don't know why the number skipped from 23 to 35. Even Lockheed thought it would be the F-24.
- The Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk, also known as the Stealth Fighter despite its ground-attack role (this has happened with several other dedicated American attack aircraft). This was the world's first true stealth aircraft, and was nicknamed "The Wobblin' Goblin" due to how hard it was to fly (another reason it got the F-for-fighter designation: the USAF wanted its Ace Pilots at the controls). During the first Gulf War, only 2.5% of the American aircraft in Iraq were F-117As, yet they struck more than 40% of the strategic targets.
However, the Nighthawk has been retired from US service, as the F-22 and B-2 have surpassed it in capability - unlike those planes, the F-117A can't really defend itself against attacks once discovered, making it a Glass Cannon. When a Serbian commander figured out how to modify their radars to lock onto and shoot one down during the Kosovo Conflict, that sounded the death knell for the Nighthawk. It also couldn't carry much ordnance, having only two bomb bays. Nevertheless, it had one hell of a service record, and it has featured in a lot of media because it's a Cool Plane.
- Despite being officially retired, the planes have not been scrapped. Rather, they have been kept mothballed  in their Nevada hangars. A few have even been spotted flying over the desert in the area. So despite being "retired", the Air Force clearly wants them ready for action.
- The Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II takes the opposite approach of the F-117A, being the Mighty Glacier of aircraft. She's slow and God bless her, she's uglier than an episode of Real Housewives, but boy does she get the job done. More widely known as "Warthog" or "Hog", the A-10 is designed to kill tanks, armored vehicles--and everyone in them. It can carry up to eight tons of bombs or missiles, but its primary weapon is the GAU-8 Avenger Gatling gun. A seven-barreled, 30mm cannon with UNIMAGINABLE amounts of dakka; you do not want to be on the receiving end of it. If you are, your coffin will probably be about the size of a snuff tin.
The A-10 is known for being at least as durable as its namesake--it's the closest thing to a flying tank the Air Force has. The A-10 packed with redundant safety systems. It can fly with one engine, has a mechanical control system in case the hydraulics fail, self-sealing fuel tanks, and the landing gear can be deployed through just a combination of gravity and air resistance. The cockpit itself is literally sheathed in a bathtub of pure titanium, meaning that if the plane is trashed, the pilot most likely won't be. Oh, and there are documented incidents of A-10's flying home using all of these failsafes.
- There was an exceptional case a few years ago, where an A10 was struck by a SAM in the left wing. Most of the wing was completely blown out, and the wreckage went straight into the engine, which then just spat it back out the exhaust and kept on going, allowing the plane to return to base safely. Now that is an insanely reliable plane.
That's not all. Despite its abilities, The Air Force never liked it and tried to retire it twice (before both Gulf Wars), but has given up on the notion after being proven twice (during said Gulf Wars) that for some missions, durability and firepower are more important then electronics and speed. Currently, the 170-strong fleet is in the process of being extensively upgraded and is expected to be in service well into the 2030s, some 50 years after entering service (that's like P-51 Mustangs being kept in service till the 80s). Some have even proposed converting them to UCAVs (i.e. unmanned drones) after retirement. That is durability.
- There was an exceptional case a few years ago, where an A10 was struck by a SAM in the left wing. Most of the wing was completely blown out, and the wreckage went straight into the engine, which then just spat it back out the exhaust and kept on going, allowing the plane to return to base safely. Now that is an insanely reliable plane.
- The Lockheed AC-130H Spectre and AC-130U Spooky are the latest in a line of flying artillery bases. As you might have guessed from the designation, it's basically a C-130 transport with lots and lots of guns. It can carry various combinations of miniguns, 40mm cannon, and 105mm howitzers. Players of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare might recall that this was the plane used in the mission "Death From Above."
- The Bell AH-1 Cobra was America's first true attack helicopter. It was introduced during Vietnam and provided vital close air support, assisted ground forces, and secured landing zones. Not quite as cool, or as powerful as its successor the Apache--but it's still one heck of a capable aircraft, and don't break down nearly as much as the AH-64. The US Marines still use them, as well as their descendants the AH-1W SuperCobra and AH-1Z Viper.
- The Boeing AH-64 Apache, as noted above, is the successor to the AH-1 Cobra. It's one of the best in the world. They were so feared in the first Iraq War, that Iraqi soldiers would literally surrender at the sight of one.
- As a note, due to their specific role, transport (or "utility") helicopters are often used by multiple, if not all, branches of the US armed forces.
- The Bell UH-1 Iroquois is the first helicopter used by US armed forces on a large scale. It debuted during the Vietnam War and over 16,000 of them were built, with dozens of variants. No Vietnam War film was complete without a fleet of UH-1s flying around in the background, most notably the "Ride of the Valkyries" scene from Apocalypse Now. As a result, the UH-1 has become a pop culture icon for America's involvement in the war. As a utility helicopter, the UH-1 was capable of doing literally everything from transport, medevac, reconnaissance, and serving as a mobile weapons platform. The UH-1 has never been retired and still sees service today, though in a much diminished role
- The CH-47 Chinook is the bigger, heavier cousin of the UH-1, and served alongside it during the Vietnam War. Originally designed as a troop carrier, the Chinook quickly made a name for itself as a heavy lifter, being able to carry large amounts of heavy equipment and supplies over large distances to remote firebases. Like the UH-1, the Chinook remains in active service today and is primarily used in air assault missions, especially in high altitudes where other helicopters would have trouble reaching. It also maintains its reputation as one of the heaviest lifting helicopters of any Western military.
- The UH-60 Black Hawk is the UH-1's official successor as the US armed force's general transport helicopter. Proven to be one of the most reliable and durable transport helicopters around, there's hardly any depiction of a modern war involving the US military that doesn't have a Black Hawk prominently featured somewhere. Like its predecessor, the Black Hawk has dozens of variants that allow it complete just about any task imaginable. The Black Hawk was made famous by the book (and later film) Black Hawk Down, where two of the namesake helicopters are shot down during the Battle of Mogadishu.
- The CH-53E Super Stallion is the Marine Corps' principal heavy-lift helicopter, and the largest and heaviest helicopter used by any western military. A 30-ton monster with three jet engines powering it, Navy Sailors call it the "Hurricane Maker" due to it's fierce rotor downwash. It can carry more than 50 Marines or 16 tons of cargo over 1,000 miles.
- The V-22 Osprey is America's (and the world's) first operational military tiltrotor aircraft. The Osprey is a hybrid vehicle, using two large propellers on its wings that can be shifted so they can work as either standard airplane engines or helicopter rotors. This allows it to maintain the vertical/short takeoff and landing capabilties of a helicopter, while benefiting from the cargo capacity and speed of a conventional airplane. This aircraft was a direct response to the botched Iran hostage rescue mission, where the limitations of both conventional planes and helicopters caused the mission to fail. Due to being the first aircraft of its kind, the Osprey was met with much controversy over issues like cost and safety, though they were eventually rectified. It now sees use with both the US Marines and Navy, and has so far held a respectable performance record. The Osprey is also now a contender as a replacement for the President's aging Marine One fleet.
US military vehicle development and procurement is a frequent source of political contention, as members of Congress (who will often have relevant jobs in their districts, such as their own, riding on the outcome) will argue openly about the necessities of certain platforms and who should build them. A US military budget proposal does not make it out of Congress intact.
The KC-X competition, to provide a replacement for the older examples of the KC-135 Stratotanker air-refueling tanker, is a case in point. The Stratotanker, based on the Boeing 707 airliner, entered service in 1956, and they're already starting to wear out. Replacing them might be a good idea. The original plan to do this, settled on in 2003, involved modified 767s which would enter service in 2006. But investigations discovered corruption was involved, and several people went to prison whilst an aboveboard competition was held. The winner of this competition, anounced in February 2008, was a partnership between Airbus and Northrop Grumman, offering modified Airbus 330-200s. However, a number of US legislators cried foul, possibly because the contract would involve a considerable amount of American dollar going off to foreign economies, never to be seen again. An investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded the competition had been unfair and recommended yet another re-try. The Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, reopened the competition in a fast-track form in July, but canceled it in September because it could not be completed within the remaining months of the George W. Bush Administration. This left the possibility of later KC-135s remaining in service until 2040, at which time they will be nearly 80 years old. Finally, Gates was able to re-open the competition under the aegis of Barack Obama. Despite surprises from Ukranian manufacturer Antonov and the withdrawal of Northrop-Grumman from the Airbus-Northrop-Grumman consortium, a decision was made in February 2011. Boeing will provide new "KC-46A" tankers, which are... modified 767s. They will enter service in 2017.
American taxpayer dollars at work, ladies and gentlemen.
Light 'Em Up Like the Fourth of July: American Weapon Systems
Like its vehicles, the United States also produces and exports a large variety of different weapon systems. Sometimes they're imitated or reverse-engineered, too. Notable examples include:
- The AIM-9 Sidewinder series is a family of short ranged, IR-guided air-to-air missiles that have been very widely exported (the Soviet K-13A/AA-2 "Atoll" was a copy too, although some consider the usual story of its creation--a Sidewinder getting stuck in a Chinese aircraft--an Urban Legend) and progressively improved since it first saw service in 1953.
- The AIM-7 Sparrow series was the first American radar-guided air-to-air missile with "beyond visual range" capabilities. Originally guided entirely by the launching plane's radar, the Vietnam War proved that a missile requiring you to Fail Spot Checks is somewhat unwise. Successive upgrades, including a major upgrade to a semi-active guidance system, turned the missile platform into a serious powerhouse, but it has been phased out in favor of the AIM-120c AMRAAM.
- The AIM-54 Phoenix series was a long ranged, actively radar-guided, designed with the express purpose of shooting down Soviet long-range bombers. Originally developed for the scrapped F-111, the F-14 Tomcat was built around a requirement to carry up to six of these missiles. The extreme expense (and weight!) of each missile, the Soviet nuclear doctrine moving towards sub-launched and land-based ballistic missiles, the pending retirement of the F-14, and the AIM-120c more efficiently covering medium-range uses led to the AIM-54 being retired from the US arsenal in 2004 with a total of two missiles fired in combat and zero targets shot down. The only combat use seen by the platform was by Iran during the Iraq-Iran War of the 80's.
- The AIM-120c AMRAAM series (commonly referred to by military writers as the Slammer) is a series of actively radar guided air-to-air medium-range missiles that, much like the Sidewinder, have been exported worldwide. The direct replacement for the Sparrow, the missile has seen limited (but very successful) use in multiple conflicts.
The US Armed Forces in Fiction
The United States military have been depicted in a massive amount of fiction, ranging from war movies to comedy to romance to detective dramas. Like with the United States itself, there are two basic depictions, with some room in the middle.
The first type are the heroic patriots, willing to fight against the odds to ensure victory for Uncle Sam and freedom, justice, Mom, baseball, and apple pie. These are common for films about, say, The American Revolution or World War II.
The second are as evil imperialists. The leaders are amoral money-grabbing capitalists, the grunts are illiterate and prone to shooting anyone who looks hostile. Most are drugged up and whoring around. Much more common for films about The Vietnam War.
The middle ground is filled with soldier victims, who started as the first type, but then succumbed to the horrors of war. Depictions leaning closer to the second type will instead paint the war as unjust and the leaders as corrupt (no matter which war it was): Rambo: First Blood, all Vietnam films, some modern World War II films ... you get the idea. Often the rank and file are cannon fodder under incompetent officers.
Different branches have different stereotypical images in fiction, too:
- The Army is the most "average" branch. The Squad, Drill Sergeant Nasty, and company are likely to be Army enlisted. Army officers are rarer, though high-level officers of all branches can appear in political shows.
- Naval officers (enlisted sailors aren't as common) are generally seen in an Officer and a Gentleman light: erudite, thoughtful, educated, interested in tactics and strategy and military theory.
- Marines (always a capital "M") are usually depicted as "jarhead" grunts. However, there are cases of intelligent retired Marines (there are no such thing as "ex-marines", unless you get a "big chicken dinner"--a Bad Conduct Discharge), such as Mac Taylor, Jethro Gibbs and John Ryan.
- Air Force and Navy Air Corps pilots are both depicted as hotshots, unless you're in the Stargate Verse.
- The Coast Guard doesn't get featured all that much. When they are, it's sometimes as a semi-militarized force keeping tabs on smuggling over aquatic borders, whether it's drugs, guns, people (either immigrants or human trafficking), or diamonds. They're more likely to be recognized in shows when they're doing search and rescue work, especially the sort that involves dangling on a cable from an orange and white helicopter.
- Special Operations units will usually be depicted separately of everyone else. They're either depicted as badasses, or they are handed a red shirt to demonstrate just how deadly the villain is.
Culture of the American Military
All armed forces have their own subcultures, it's just that the US military's is very well-recorded. American aircraft nose-art is a well-known subject, especially of the Pin Up variety.
There is a massive amount of US military slang (including a worrying number of terms on the subject of self-pleasuring), some of which has entered non-military use. "Boomer", for example, is the US slang term for a ballistic missile submarine (because it fires things that go "boom"), which is used in the Atomic Hate category.
Also, while many other militaries have traditional marching songs, the US military sings while it runs, too. No one is sure exactly where or when it started, but "Jody calls" were introduced to the US military when it was fully racially integrated, just after the Korean War, and some sources suggest it may go back further than that. Black noncoms taught running songs based on the traditional call-and-response black Gospel songs of the Deep South to white recruits, and it proved so popular that they've been doing it for almost sixty years now. "Jody calls" are as a rule often not especially politically correct; critics note that many consist largely of bloodthirsty boasting, but then again, if anyone's entitled to sing about how tough they are, it's them. Some US police academies have also adopted the tradition. One incidental aspect of Jody calls is in using breath to both run and sing, further increasing the work done in aerobic exercise.
Singing also applies not just to "Jody Calls," but to the fighter pilot community as well--especially among those in the Air Force. Most of these are bawdy drinking songs, though there are exceptions, and many are Vietnam War vintage or older--but the USAF fighter pilot duo Dos Gringos has been trying to revive the tradition of fighter pilot songs by writing new ones, and they've become fairly popular among the branches.
Another tradition shared amongst the services is the Challenge Coin, tracing back to an occasion in the First World War where a downed American pilot was able to prove to friendly troops that he wasn't a spy only by presenting a bronze medallion with his squadron's insignia on it (his identification had been taken by German troops before he was able to escape after a brief capture). If challenged via a "Coin Check" (typically by someone pulling out their coin and slamming it down on the table or bar), anybody who does not have their coins has to buy everybody else a beer. If you pull a coin check and everybody has their coin, you owe THEM a beer.
There are specific but very noteworthy pieces of culture within the services, too. For example, from 1989 to 2004, the F-14 Tomcat squadrons in the Navy Air Corps released an annual Fighter Fling, a sort of yearbook turned into one long Fan Vid celebrating all the Tomcat squadrons by setting clips of them being Badass or Bunny-Eared to whatever music was popular at the time. Some of these videos show up on YouTube occasionally, but as is the case with modern anime/movie/video game-based Fan Vids, they are often taken down thanks to DMCA.
Interservice Rivalry is another major aspect of American military culture--there are countless jokes putting one branch on a pedestal at the expense of another (or all of them). A number of the stereotypes people outside the military have of specific branches are also shared by other branches. For example, the Navy's air corps pilots refer to themselves as Aviators, and look down their nose at the Air Force's mere pilots--one claim being that USAF pilots lack the skill to land on a carrier. (Dos Gringos, by the way, shot that claim down from beyond visual range and tossed in a comeback while they were at it.) Meanwhile, the "dumb jarhead" stereotype that other branches have of the Marines probably originated from the World War II; the Marines were the only branch that would accept recruits who couldn't read or write. Given that the Marines are the smallest branch of service, however, and the one with the most colorful reputation, they've often been the only branch that routinely meets its recruiting goals, and has the luxury of being particularly selective, in the era of the all-volunteer military.
The Army traces its roots to the colonial militia. Solders are professional and dedicated to their job. Those who aren't get "UCMJ" (read punishment). Like the Air Force, "Big Army" has Fun with Acronyms. It has is own slang and vocabulary. A character who was in the Army will say things like "Roger" or "Hooah!" The proper way to end a radio transmission for good is "out" not "over and out" (and never say repeat). Many a NCO will chew you out about that. As the younger sibling, the Air Force took many terms and ranks. But they have a more relaxed "Corporate" culture as opposed to the Army. The Army does make jokes about the "Chair-force" and needing to use pictures and small words to talk to the "jarheads".
As part of the Naval service and a sister branch of the Navy, Marines use naval terminology, even ashore (e.g.: "the head" (restroom), "port" (left side of something), "starboard" (right side), "the deck" (the floor), "hatches" (doors), "bulkheads" (walls), "aboard" (a base or other installation), "aye-aye" (in response to an order or command), "the fleet" (the Marine Corps' operating forces)). They probably use it even more rigorously than do sailors, which can be disconcerting and confusing to casual observers. Whether current or former, Marines take their job very, very seriously--not for nothing is the motto of the Marine Corps "Semper Fidelis," "Always Faithful" (spoken "Semper Fi," to rhyme with "temper pie"). Running afoul of the American military is bad no matter what, but if you run afoul of the Marines, then God help you. Many are fond of Rudyard Kipling.
Usually, all the interservice rivalries melt away in a real combat situation--either turning into grudging or earnest respect. (Usually.) Opposition to interservice rivalry and a unified, joint chain of command has been written into US law since the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, which was borne out of bad experience with rivalries in Vietnam. The military has been pushing more and more since then to "think purple" (as in, blend all the uniform colors together) in working together across service lines. Officers are expected to serve at least one joint tour to learn to work with other branches of service if they want to remain competitive for promotions.
While the image of the "dumb grunt" persists, the reality is that the US military does, in fact, value education rather highly. Many recruits sign up in part to get money to pay for higher education through the GI Bill, as well as recieve practical training in specialized skills. And as one ascends the ranks, the level of formal education goes up - many NC Os are college educated, all officers are - the US only commissions college graduates, and graduate education is pretty much a requirement to make flag rank. (The Armed Forces conveniently run a number of graduate-level institutions, many of which are highly-respected in some field or other; for instance, the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks is well-known to be a good research center for security studies and international relations.) It should definitely be mentioned that the US military is one of the only employers in America, as well as being the largest and the only public employer, that can use frank intelligence and mental aptitude tests without fear of being sued for discrimination (the military is exempt from those provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act).
Ranks in the US Armed Forces
This topic is a mess, partially because the Navy and Coast Guard uses one set of ranks (the ones from Star Trek) and the Army, Air Force and USMC use another. Even better, both sets of ranks have "Captain" in them... but at different points on the ladder; a sea-going Captain is an officer of some repute, but a landlubber Captain is barely halfway up his climb. This can lead to seniority issues in situations where people from one service have operational command of people from another. Fictional examples of this sort of Jurisdiction Friction include Halo and Wing Commander, which we'll now use to explicate:
- Does a Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy outrank a Sergeant Major in the Marines? 
- Does a Colonel from the Space Forces outrank a Naval Captain? 
- Does a Master Chief outrank a Lieutenant? 
As you can see, it's an enormous tangle, with rank, service and experience all getting involved. Fortunately, there's the "Common Ranks" page on this wiki and a List of United States uniformed-services pay grades on The Other Wiki, which lists comparative ranks across many services, to help us keep things straightened out. The thing we're going to spend time on is the issue of "Generals" (Army, Marines and Air Force) and "Admirals" (Navy and Coast Guard). There are five ranks of General/Admiral, indicated by the number of stars on your uniform:
- Brigadier General / Rear Admiral lower half (one star)
- Major General / Rear Admiral upper half (two stars)
- Lieutenant General / Vice Admiral (three stars)
- General / Admiral (four stars)
- General of the Army (or Air Force) / Fleet Admiral (five stars)--wartime only. For further reference, the last person to hold this rank was Omar Bradley, in 1950. The last Fleet Admiral was FADM Chester Nimitz, during World War II. Both got pieces of military tech named after them.
- General of the Armies / Admiral of the Navy (hypothetically six stars): While never formally defined as higher than a five star general rank, George Washington was raised to that rank posthumously and John J. Pershing held this rank as well until his death. It is worth noting that, by law, nobody in the US Armed Forces can outrank George Washington. EVER.
However, in the US, everyone with a star is called General (or, in the Navy, Admiral). This is why Lieutenant General George Hammond and
Major Lieutenant General Jonathan "Jack" O'Neill from the Stargate Verse are just called General Hammond or General O'Neill.
This also applies to some other ranks, thus (Lieutenant) Colonel John Sheppard and earlier Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Carter--she is now a "full-bird" Colonel. The emblem of a full Colonels in the USAF (and the equivalent rank in every other branch) is an eagle, hence the "bird." A "half-bird," or "light" colonel is a Lt Col. Sheppard started off in Stargate Atlantis as a Major, gaining military command of the expedition after Colonel Sumner became Wraith food in the second part of the opener (he in fact got a Mercy Kill from Sheppard). Carter began as a Captain.
In the Navy and Coast Guard, a Captain is the equivalent of an Army/Air Force/Marine Corps Colonel. They're often referred to as a "full-bird Captain", as well, to distinguish them from Army/Marine/Air Force Captains. This is also due to the fact that the commanding officer of a ship or installation is always addressed as "Captain," even if their actual rank is something else. (In the novel Starship Troopers, an Army Captain is even "promoted" in social situations to "Major" to avoid addressing him by "the title reserved for the one and only monarch.") Like in the Army, similar ranks tend to be conflated: USN/USCG Lieutenant Commanders and Commanders are both generally addressed as "Commander," and both Lieutenants junior grade and full-on Lieutenants are called "Lieutenant."
Oh, and everything listed above? That was mostly just describing Commissioned Officer ranks. Each branch has an entirely different rank system for their enlisted troops, which only sometimes lines up in intuitive ways, with similar or identically named ranks being at different levels (for instance, an Army Staff Sergeant outranks an Air Force Staff Sergeant, being one paygrade higher. An Airman First Class and a Private First Class both outrank a Marine Private First Class, the latter being one paygrade lower then the other two. While an Army or Marine Corporal are both at the same paygrade as a Senior Airman, they both outrank the Senior Airman because they are NC Os while the Senior Airman is still considered junior-enlisted (unlike every other branch, the Air Force does not have an NCO grade at the fourth-lowest level, although Senior Airmen often carry out similar supervisory duties as Corporals would).
The US military shares one tradition with the UK military and many others descended from the British model that isn't much spoken of: it is the non-commissioned officers who get everything done. The noncoms--sergeants and, in the Navy, petty officers--are better trained and more professional than many other nations' commissioned officers.
Both Marine staff non-commissioned officers and Navy Chief Petty Officers are always referred to by the complete name of their rank (e.g.: always "Staff Sergeant," or "Master" Chief and never just "Sergeant" or "Chief"). In the Army and Air Force the proper address is "Sergeant". No NCO is never, ever called "Sarge," though a Gunnery Sergeant, Master Sergeant or First Sergeant may respectively be "Gunny" or "Top" by their own if they permit that.
Senior and experienced non-commissioned officers and master chief petty officers in all branches of the military may take a "First Sergeant" or "command master chief" professional track as they are promoted to certain grades or are placed in the appropriate billet. Such NC Os are act as "senior enlisted advisors" within units to act as a link between the commanding officer and the enlisted personnel. In the Army, E-8s and E-9s serving in such roles are respectively "First Sergeants" and "Command Sergeants Major." Air Force Master Sergeants (E-7) and above in this position are "First Sergeants." Navy Master Chiefs become "Command Master Chiefs." The Marine Corps uses completely separate parallel tracks by which Gunnery Sergeants elect a choice on their regular fitness reports to be promoted either to First Sergeant, and thereafter Sergeant Major, or to Master Sergeant and then Master Gunnery Sergeant, and the Marines do not allow lateral move between these parallel ranks. Each branch of the service also has a specific billet and rank for the seniormost enlisted member of each service, who is meant to act as a representative for all enlisted members and as the senior enlisted advisor to the service's chief. These are respectively the Sergeant Major of the Army, the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, and the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps.
The Navy, having its own set of ranks, often doesn't even use them when addressing each other, instead using titles referring to their jobs. The Communications Officer may be an Ensign, but on a ship you call her Commo. Likewise, a Fire Control Technician who is a Petty Officer Third Class, for instance, would often be addressed as a Fire Control Technician Third Class, usually abreviated as FC3. This is probably because if something breaks on a ship at sea, you're more concerned with whether someone can fix it then with who they outrank.
And as far as the whole "Captain" thing goes, ironically it's the ground rank that got there first. The first navies were more or less formed by the King snapping up whatever was floating in dock at the moment, and putting soldiers on them. Since a single ship supported around a company of men, and the commander of a company since time immemorial has been a "Captain", there we go. The original nautical rank in civilian shipping was "Master", which in the US Navy made its way down the ranks until being replaced around the time of the Civil War with "Lieutenant Junior Grade."
Every branch of service except the Air Force also has Warrant Officers, who are former highly-experienced senior enlisted personnel who are promoted to a grade of officers below commissioned officers but above enlisted personnel. Warrant officers are usually experts in particular technical or other specialized fields and the ranks exist so the military can hang on to their expertise and keep them in a particular billet while continuing to promote them. In the Navy and Marines, Warrant Officers are often referred to as "Gunners" (though, technically, in the Marines, this is only supposed to apply to Infantry Weapons Officers).
"War is the Continuation of Policy by Other Means": The Chain of Command and the Military's Relationship to the Government
The President of the United States is the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces under the Constitution, placing him at the top of the chain of command of all military forces in federal service. Under the Constitution, all commissioned officers in the United States military are officially appointed by the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate, and serve indefinitely at the pleasure of the President, though in practice, except at the seniormost levels or when politics are in play, both the President and the Senate typically act to ratify the recommendations of military officers with regards to promotions and appointments of their juniors. The President holds the largest share of responsibility for and authority over military and foreign affairs. Congress' role is largely limited to providing for funding for the military (which includes authorizations for forming specific units, establishing bases, creating specific officer billets, and approving particular weapon systems) and issuing formal declarations of war or authorizations for military force, though Congress also has the exclusive power to make rules and regulations governing the Armed Forces, such as the Uniform Code of Military Justice (the body of military law), as well as the Senate's power to ratify (or to refuse to ratify) treaties and international agreements negotiated by the President. Congress has formally declared war only five times in history, the last time in 1941, but has authorized or funded numerous other military engagements. On at least 125 separate occasions, the President has ordered military action without approval from Congress. Following the withdrawal of US combat troops from Vietnam in 1973, Congress passed over a Presidential veto the War Powers Resolution, which requires the President to inform Congress within 48 hours of committing the military to armed conflict, and forbids the military from remaining in action for more than 90 days absent an authorization from Congress. Though generally adhered to, the constitutionality of the War Powers Resolution has never been tested, and every President since its passage has maintained that the Resolution is an unconstitutional encroachment on the President's powers as Commander-in-Chief.
The US military uses a joint "Unified Combat Command" structure by which command flows from the President, through the Secretary of Defense as second-in-command, directly to appointed Combatant Commanders, who are typically four-star generals or admirals with command over all military forces assigned to a particular geographical combat theater or joint command, irrespective of branch of service (e.g.: United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM), responsible for North America; Central Command (USCENTCOM), responsible for the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia; or Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), responsible for all special operations forces). (Note that if the President dies, is incapacitated, or is deemed unable to discharge the duties of office, then the Vice President would assume the duties of the President under the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, including those as Commander-in-Chief.) Each individual service has its own service chiefs (the Chiefs of Staff of the Army and Air Force, the Chief of Naval Operations, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps) who are typically the highest ranking officers in each of those branches of service, but who are not normally ever in direct command of operating forces while serving in those billets. Collectively, they and several other appointed senior military officers make up the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who are the senior military advisers to the President, Secretary of Defense, and National Security Council (made up of the Executive Branch's top national security and foreign policy officials).
Oversexed, Overfed, Overpaid and Over Here: The US Military Abroad
The US armed forces have bases in quite a few foreign countries and have turned up in many others. This allows them to be used as plot devices in foreign Crime and Punishment Series.
The most notable case was World War II. Compared to the situation in other countries, there wasn't a tremendous amount of rationing in the US during the war, meaning that your average GI would have access to stuff like tobacco, chocolate and nylon stockings, and was (despite perennial complaints about the food) far better fed than his starving German and Japanese counterparts. The women of Britain and liberated Europe were rather grateful for this (mostly having only seen Americans on the silver screen), so some gave them what they had to offer. As a result, quite a few US soldiers stayed in Europe permanently. That the Cold War was going on didn't hurt, as a US military presence in Europe continued for a long time after the end of the war (and still goes on today).
Having bases around the world also helps the US strengthen one of its key advantages, unmatched deployability. This means that the United States has numerous staging points to mass their forces, resupply, defend allies, provide humanitarian aid, and provide deterrent. For example, Marine bases established in Japan at the end of World War II were key to supporting the UN forces in the Korean War, while US bases in Turkey and other Middle Eastern allies were key in winning both Iraq wars. The bases also have their own set of problems associated with them. Okinawa island to the south of Japan is a case in point.
Also, note African American servicemen went to Europe in both World Wars. Many of them found European cultures less racist--or at least less institutionally racist--than the US, and contrived to miss the boat home. The rise of the Paris jazz scene between the wars is just one of the results.
What has the American military ever done for us?
The American military has been directly and indirectly responsible for quite a few useful things beside their real-world military actions, for which Your Mileage May Vary:
- The very existence of this Wiki was made possible via the US Department of Defense wanting to create a way for people to gain access to powerful research computers they were geographically separated from--for both purely scientific/academic and military projects. Incidentally, it also protected the flow of information between military installations from attacks (up to and including nuclear weapons). This is what became the Internet. (The World Wide Web and the hypertext system, while still vital, was a civilian thing)
- Your sat-nav. NAVSTAR GPS, developed for the US military and made available for public use after the KAL 007 shoot-down.
- Supersonic flight--first done by the US Air Force.
- The Moon Landings--military-trained pilots. Of the 12 men to walk on the Moon, only one (Harrison Schmidt) had never been a member of the US Armed Forces. Of the remaining 11, only the first (Neil Armstrong) was directly employed by NASA: Armstrong was a retired Navy test pilot, while the remaining 10 were still active-duty Air Force and Navy pilots (4 Air Force, 6 Navy).
- US Space Exploration in general--the Titan space launchers were originally for Superior Firepower.
- Antibiotics. In order to keep troops healthy, the US Military developed a way to mass produce penicillin in World War II to ensure every soldier would have access to some.
- Nylon--originally created for parachutes. Or rather, originally created for women's stockings, which used the silk needed for parachutes at the beginning of World War II; old stockings were turned into parachutes. And then they ran out of old silk stockings and started making the parachutes out of old nylon stockings and whatever other nylon they could get their hands on. Women held stocking drives to support the war effort.
- Duct tape--originally created as a waterproof packing tape for supply crates being carried ashore in amphibious landings. Called "mile a minute tape" or "ninety mile an hour tape" in the military, US military duct tape is olive drab instead of silver.
- In response to large natural disasters around the world, when the US sends aid, the first responders are usually the military, who have the logistical capacity to quickly move a lot of supplies and medical personnel, often to territory that doesn't lend itself easily to conventional civilian transportation due to limitations of local infrastructure (pre-existing limitations or those caused by the disasters themselves). Entire naval battle groups have been rerouted to provide aid, occasionally even as the disaster is in progress.
- When military historians or amateur military buffs play the "who was the best military in history" game, it's pretty much a consensus that the one area the US military has been better at than any armed force in history is logistics. No military is as capable of shipping troops and materiel from point A to point B, and this was a large (and frequently unheralded) contributing factor to the Allied victory in World War II. Sadly, this strength may have degraded in recent years as responsibility for logistical operations are outsourced more and more to unscrupulous civilian contractors.
- One of the benefits of joining the US military since WWII is having your college paid for by the Montgomery GI bill. One can also get a scholarship by joining the ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps, essentially a college level cadet program that leads into a military career as an officer). In addition, each service offers the ability to gain college credit, and in some cases having a degree is a requirement for promotion even for the enlisted. In America joining the military to get an education is a fairly common motivation, helping to make the military an institution of society in many parts of the US.
US Nuclear Weapons
The United States was first to develop the atomic bomb, as well as the first and only nation to actually use the atomic bomb offensively. To date, no one has used the atomic bomb defensively, either, so except for setting them off to see if they will in fact explode at all, the US is simply "the only nation to use the atomic bomb." The US is now the second biggest holder of nuclear weapons. See Peace Through Superior Firepower, since they turn up a bit in fiction.
Since the War On Terror, the United States military (particularly the Air Force) has unfortunately become synonymous with "friendly fire" in world public opinion. If you ask the average citizen of an allied nation who has killed more of their own country's soldiers, they are likely to say "the Americans" over "terrorists." This response is often indicative of what they think of Americans as a whole (hint: Flavor #2).
The stereotype is nothing new; as far back as World War II, there were rumors that the US Army Air Corps bombed friendly targets as often as not. There's a number of reasons why this stereotype has become so prevalent, though:
- Relative size of participating forces. The United States has had the lion's share of soldiers involved in The War on Terror. There were three times more Americans compared to British soldiers during the Iraq War, for example, which alone makes it three times as likely for Americans to be involved in a friendly fire incident than the British. If other nations had committed more forces, then they would accordingly be involved in more friendly fire incidents.
- Unique duties. In many cases, the United States military is the only force necessary with enough equipment--or even the right equipment--to perform a certain task; for example, few countries field an attack aircraft similar to the A-10, and replacements for the F-117 are thin on the ground as well. This means American forces might fly the lion's share of certain sensitive missions and/or are often called in to support units of other nations.
- Poor Communication Kills. In supporting the units of those other nations, the average American soldier has to deal with soldiers that don't use the same procedures, technology, or even the same language as him. Cross-training and standardization through outfits like NATO are supposed to help with this sort of problem, and sometimes they do... but sometimes they don't. Even within the military itself, Interservice Rivalry, or even just a case of Right Hand Versus Left Hand, means that not everyone is up on the same plan or even using the same newfangled Awesome but Impractical radios, or targeting gear, or other piece of equipment that's barely out of beta.
- Advances in technology. In the Information Age, everything is meticulously recorded and tracked. The modern battlefield allows such precision control of everything that it has done much to actually reduce the amount of friendly fire incidents. Even worse, modern weapons are so lethal that the margin of error is approaching the Planck Length; you'd better just pray you were aiming in the right spot when you hit the trigger, because once the weapon is released, someone is going to die.
- Media coverage. News outlets focus on covering friendly-fire incidents rather than successful missions simply because they draw more attention... and, as mentioned, now it's much easier to trace where the misplaced 500-pound smart bomb came from. (Spoiler: The Butler Did It.)
- Confirmation bias. Foreigners who believe that Americans are "rightly" to blame for all friendly fire cases pointedly ignore that friendly fire incidents can and do happen in their own armed forces. Friendly fire has been a problem throughout history, and not just for Americans. For example, the Falklands War saw some spectacular cases of British-on-British friendly fire--with no Americans around to blame. It should surprise no one that non-American friendly fire persists in the War On Terror, with plenty of examples.
- ↑ Did we mention that the unit happened to be in downtown Baghdad at the time surrounded by hostiles and with only a few Bradleys as back-ups. And did we mention that without gas the Abrams isn't even a very expensive pillbox as it cannot even fire its cannon or power its electronics.
- ↑ It was actually a dedicated "interceptor" with little or no maneuverability; the huge wings were merely to keep it from falling out of the sky, as we found out when a Soviet pilot defected with one to Japan
- ↑ the Syrians claim to have gotten 3 Israeli birds in late '82, but even on Wikipedia that claim has a "[Citation Needed]" tag
- ↑ Basically stored partially dis-assembled, but easily restored to active service.
- ↑ Tech Specs: it fires ten rounds per second, each roughly the size and weight of a quart milk bottle, at 3,250 feet per second muzzle velocity. The recoil from the gun is more powerful than one of the plane's 2 engines at full throttle. Ouch.
- ↑ It had its own miniature radar built in and would guide itself to the target without the launching pilot's supervision; this is the source of the term "Fire and forget"
- ↑ Kinda. Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy is the most senior enlisted man in the navy, an E-9. The Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps would be equivalent to John, but Johnson is simply a Sergeant Major; this is equivalent in paygrade (E-9), but not in authority. Of course, this raises all sorts of questions about why they'd give John a pay rate/rank that usually goes with an administrative job--not to mention why Johnson is able to act like Mission Control and give him orders.
- ↑ No, but only because Captain Eisen is The Captain of The Battlestar; under other circumstances, Blair's rank would equal his. Additionally, Blair is also Luke Skywalker, which probably gives him seniority over some judge who sentenced Jim Carrey.
- ↑ No, absolutely not. John-117 is holds the highest Enlisted rank it's possible to get; he's been fighting for longer than Haverson has been alive; he's the Player Character, automatically making him a One-Man Army; and Haverson is a spy, for God's sake, a member of the Armchair Military. But Haverson is also a Lieutenant, and officers outrank enlisted, period. Fortunately for everyone, Haverson is also a Reasonable Authority Figure and defers to John during ground ops.
- ↑ (Carl von Clausewitz, On War)
- ↑ Other than institutionally, Europeans could be worse than the most backwards American hillbillies--a fact that would come to bite later dark-skinned immigrants in the ass once America made a concerned effort to clean up its act, but Europe--not thinking of itself as racist--did not.
- ↑ Interesting aside: The penicillin was based on a sample from a moldy cantaloupe found in Peoria, discovered after a months-long nationwide search. That's right: to save thousands of soldiers and millions of others, the US Armed Forces dispatched people across the country to stick their noses in moldy fruit. Also, until then, it was accepted practice in the military for soldiers being treated with penicillin to collect their pee so the penicillin could be purified out of it--most of a dose of penicillin doesn't actually do anything, but rather gets expelled through the urinary system. When penicillin is cheap this isn't a problem, but when it's expensive...