These American Weapons Will Last Forever
Commanding the largest percentage of the world’s GDP, the United States’ economic concerns extends to far-flung “strategic interests” that must be defended. Since 1945 fulfilling this responsibility called for a vast conventional and nuclear arsenal.
The US might never resort to deploying the latter against an enemy state, but the conventional weapons it builds for its soldiers is proof of its unrivaled industrial and technological might. Each of these lethal arms fulfilled a specific purpose. When the purpose disappeared–a threat receded, a war ended–the usefulness of these weapons remained.
If not for the US military, then another country’s armed forces.
Preoccupied as it is with rival countries and regional alliances, the US is a generous merchant of its own hardware. Its ordnance and killing machines are paid for to the tune of billions, sometimes by cruel foreign regimes, while impressive quantities are exported as “aid” and assistance.
With American hegemony lasting generations, some of its weapons have triumphed against time and shaped how organized violence is conducted…and they continue to shape it still.
The most popular semi-automatic pistol made in the US continues to be a favorite of its armed forces. At 104 years old and a household name, the 1911’s iconic status is further embellished by unlicensed copies from other parts of the world. Foreign militaries, police forces, and civilian gun owners revere it for its timeless qualities.
The 1911 is an automatic pistol originally designed by John M. Browning, the autodidact and gunsmith responsible for shaping the entire modern heritage of US-made small arms. Before he created the Browning Automatic Rifle and two iconic machine guns, he made a pistol for Colt to meet the requirements for the US Army cavalry.
The pistol was a success and remained a US military sidearm until 1992. A century hence and the 1911 is what springs to mind when “45” and “Colt” are uttered. It’s simple and powerful with a legend that will carry it to the next century.
For a machine gun designed after World War One, the Ma Deuce is a monument to staying power. Mounted on almost every type of vehicle, aircraft, and ship, the Browning chambered for the .50 BMG round is the perfect marriage between form and function.
Every branch of the US military, including the Coast Guard, considers the M2 Browning indispensable. Weighing 84 pounds without its tripod, the 50-cal’s range extends beyond four kilometers when aimed carefully. The M2 Browning’s targets have included the enemy in four continents. This includes Nazis, Japanese kamikazes, Asian guerrillas, every manner of habitable abode, trees, animals, rocks, other machine guns, tanks, cars, trucks, and humans innocent and guilty. Mostly humans.
It’s remarkable how, across a hundred conflicts great and small, there has never been a serious effort to alter the M2 Browning. Is it the very incarnation of war? Permanent and unchanging?
Unlike the majority of small arms built in the last 200 years, there seems no reason for the M2 to disappear from the world’s arsenals.
Designed by a company with neither the financial nor manufacturing resources to mass-produce it, what became the Jeep was envisioned as a workhorse for the US Army.
By 1941, Ford Motors and Willys-Overland MB were building thousands of Jeeps and the numbers kept growing from there. Between World War Two and the Vietnam War a million Jeeps rolled out of US factories.
They could drive anywhere and carry any type of weapon, from machine guns to anti-tank missile launchers. A household name in the post-War era, the Jeep went on to change automotive history and is still manufactured in different countries today.
Only the arrival of the HMMWV in 1983 replaced the Jeep as the ultimate off-road 4×4.
A relative amount of simplicity is all it takes for a weapon to enjoy universal success. There was a time when the US Army preoccupied itself with practical armaments rather than cutting-edge “systems,” creating enduring weapons in the process.
The M101 howitzer belongs to this fabled period, specifically the inter-war years between 1920 to 1941. At the time its 105mm cartridge made it a serious heavy hitter. Today, however, the M101 is a light artillery piece. Its original variants, the M1 and M2, were deployed in both theaters of World War Two. Continuous improvement made it a fixture in every US-led conflict until the 2000s.
Exported and delivered to US allies for the past 70 years, the M101 qualifies as the Platonic ideal for towed artillery.
One of the M14’s peculiarities is it wasn’t considered an assault rifle but a semi-automatic long rifle–being an heir to the fabled M1 Garand.
But its short service life in the hands of the US Army, from 1957 to 1963 (production ceased the following year), left it consigned to the Marine Corps and ultimately government armories.
A potent weapon in many third world armies for decades, the 7.62x51mm M14 enjoyed a rekindling with its original owners during the previous decade. Fancied a “designated marksman rifle,” it found a new purpose in the hands of American snipers.
The M14 continues to be tinkered with more than half a century since it was introduced. Ridiculous tactical accessorization, unlicensed mass-production in China, and one inventor’s bullpup are testaments to its staying power.
Eugene Stoner’s greatest invention had an uneasy start in the battlefields of Southeast Asia, where it’s still widely used. But since 1963 the 5.56x45mm M16 was gradually improved to meet the needs of Cold War infantrymen.
Beginning with the CAR-15 in Vietnam, the M16’s subsequent variants made the rifle an icon. In 1982 the M16A2 became standard issue with the Marine Corps. Three years later it became the US Army’s assault rifle too.
The advent of the M16A2 also introduced the M203 underbarrel grenade launcher, which transitioned to the M16’s shorter versions. Married to the M16 for 30 years now, the 40mm M203 isn’t going to disappear either.
In 1994, the M4 carbine replaced the M16A2 and today the Marine Corps use the tougher M16A4. During the 2000s the M4 led the way for the tactical accessorization trend that has transformed modern small arms. M16’s in the hundreds of thousands have been given to US allies in the Middle East, Asia, and South America.
An assault rifle synonymous with the US soldier, no amount of criticism can blunt the 53-year-old M16’s progress. Not only will it stay in use with American ground forces, but M16’s and their variants are manufactured in at least a dozen countries.
No deadlier ambush exists than the nimble Claymore. Containing 700 ball bearings that spread over a 50 meter arc when detonated, the Claymore is also an unwitting proponent of the English language. It has brought the phrase “Face Toward Enemy” to every foreign country the US has invaded in the last 55 years.
Human Rights Watch reports that 7.8 million M18 and M18A1 Claymore mines have been built since 1960 and to this day the Pentagon continues ordering the Claymore in bulk. Even with anti-land mine treaties like the Ottawa Convention enforced around the world, the US circumvented the agreement by agreeing to strict conditions on the deployment of Claymores.
If imitation is the best form of flattery, the Claymore is a sure winner. France, South Africa, Serbia, Russia, and China have mass-produced copies it.
The US military has been infatuated with multi-barrel guns since the Gatling first spewed hot lead during the Civil War (1861-1865). With the advent of the Jet Age the rotary-fire machine gun came alive once more. It was General Electric who developed the M61 Vulcan, a genuine all-American six-barrel gun in 1956 meant for US Air Force combat aircraft.
In 1968 the US Army adapted the Vulcan for their own purposes, deploying the first units of the M168 Vulcan as a self-propelled anti-aircraft vehicle. It featured the 20mm M61 mounted on an M113 APC. The M61 was also installed on a towed carriage for defending air fields and fortifications. Although withdrawn from service by the end of the Cold War, the M168 is a favorite among US allies like South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.
The Vulcan is the preferred gun of the USAF, installed on every fighter plane from the F-104 Starfighter to the F-22 Raptor. Until directed energy weapons leave it redundant, the 50-year-old Vulcan is indispensable for another half century.
The Light Anti-tank Weapon came to be in the heady first decades of the Cold War, when radical weapon concepts were born in quick succession.
Rather than encumber an infantryman with a large Bazooka-type rocket launcher–the short-lived M20 comes to mind–the LAW was a retractable aluminum tube housing a 66mm rocket. Always a modest weapon, the original LAW’s effective range was 250 meters and its penetration is less than 10 inches of armor or concrete.
Simple to operate and novel for being disposable, the LAW that was introduced in 1963 did poorly during the Vietnam War. But its concept and affordability kept it in US and NATO arsenals for decades. The former Soviet Union copied it, creating a whole lineage of disposable one-shot launchers like the RPG-22, RPG-26, RPG-27, and RPG-28.
The LAW also inspired a revolution in disposable anti-tank weapons, with similar rocket launchers built in the UK, Sweden, France, Turkey, and Germany. Better munitions are being produced for it as well.
Owing to its compactness, US ground forces are still confident with the LAW and new orders from manufacturer Nammo Talley are made every year. Interestingly, the LAW might become a precision weapon if someone decides to install a miniaturized fire-control system on it.
When the US Army needed a genuine anti-tank guided missile, in came the TOW. That’s Tube-launched Optically-tracked Wire-guided. A 150mm tube on a sturdy tripod, the TOW’s appearance recalled the recoilless rifles it consigned to obsolescence.
The TOW fired a 19 kilogram missile with a HEAT warhead capable of destroying any modern tank at ranges often beyond three kilometers. But the TOW’s success really sprang from its distribution. Rather than keep the TOW for the US Army, it was exported to US allies in every continent. By the 1980s the TOW was in the arsenals of 36 different countries, making it the world’s most successful ATGM.
At least eight different kinds of TOW missiles exist, including variants with top attack warheads. Israel and Iran both built copies of the TOW, the latter without a license. The TOW even influenced China’s own wildly popular ATGM system.
The 45-year-old TOW is so dependable, even terrorists in Syria have taken a shining to it.
The advent of the Sidewinder transformed modern air combat by allowing a target to be engaged before it could get close enough for an old school dogfight. The year was 1956.
Every aspect of the AIM-9 was a novelty until then. It was small, thin, and featured a peculiar infrared guidance system–a glass eyeball–that followed the target’s tail section. It was first used in combat during the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1958 against Chinese MiGs. The Vietnam War and the frequent Arab-Israeli Wars were vital in its evolution as the free world’s premier heat-seeking missile.
Variants of the AIM-9 are used by all US Air Force and Navy combat aircraft. It was adapted by the US Army as a primary air-to-air SAM for its helicopters and for a ground-based anti-aircraft system called the Chaparral
Gradually improved with each passing decade, the 60-year-old Sidewinder is now being readied for the integrated battlefield of tomorrow where the human factor is quickly losing relevance. Should air battles take place in hostile skies somewhere in the near future, it’s probable a Sidewinder or its derivatives are involved.
Any hostile regime’s infrastructure is in mortal danger when the US Navy deploys its favorite land-attack missile. Since Operation Desert Storm no other type of ordnance has come to represent US hard power in the digital age.
When launched in a fountain of searing white light, the Tomahawk is propelled by its turbofan engine over waves and beaches, cruising low enough to avoid radar. The Tomahawk’s legendary precision is enabled by its GPS guidance and terrain matching sensors, which steers its 1,000 pound warhead towards its destiny.
Originally meant to strike targets deep in the former Soviet Union, the Tomahawk’s arrival in 1983 meant it soon needed a new role. This was provided by a succession of US enemies in the Balkans, the Middle East, and Africa in the last 25 years. The US has been very selfish by not exporting the Tomahawk and its only international customer is the UK.
Having been fired in anger 2,000 times since the 1990s, the subsonic Tomahawk is a mainstay for US Navy submarines and destroyers. This is why its manufacturer Raytheon continues to improve its capabilities with the Tomahawk Block IV.
With a name suggesting furnace-like incineration for its targets, the Hellfire is one of the most effective missiles ever used by the US military. Meant to function as a tank-killer affixed on attack helicopters, the Hellfire entered service in 1984.
The Hellfire excelled at its intended role but would soon evolve as more platforms were developed to deploy it. The rise of the MQ-9 Reaper, for example, found a new use for the Hellfire as a terrorist hunter. More than a decade of clandestine drone strikes later and it’s responsible for more than 2,000 deaths worldwide, many of them civilians.
Several Hellfire variants have been developed. It’s possible for the Hellfire to be used as a ground based anti-tank missile, but its widest use is among helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. Future assessments of its legacy might see the Hellfire recognized as the first conventional munition for killer robots.
Conceived as a universal anti-ship munition for the US Air Force and Navy, the Harpoon has stood the test of time to become the world’s best known naval missile.
Originally meant for the US Navy, Boeing started testing the Harpoon in 1971 and the missile entered service by 1977. It was in 1983 when Harpoons were first adapted for aircraft use, deploying on a B-52H.
The Harpoon is meant to destroy enemy warships in major naval engagements–a type of battle that hasn’t materialized since no current navy (except China’s) can challenge the US. The Harpoon can be fired from frigates, attack submarines, and aircraft like the P-8 Poseidon and F/A-18 Hornet.
Exported to 30 countries and in continuous production, the Harpoon could still be around by the time unmanned warships and submarines ply and high seas.
A terrifically underrated vehicle, the V-100 Commando and its variants are some of the most capable armored cars in the modern era.
Cadillac Gage began R&Ding the Commando in the early 1960s and the first V-100’s entered service by 1964. Intended to function as a scouting vehicle, the V-100 instead became the ideal light APC for rear echelon units like Military Police and US allies.
Widely exported to Asia, the Middle East, and South America, the V-100 and the V-150 managed to endure by adopting different roles. Depending on an army’s requirements, a Commando can support a turret with a 90mm gun, serve as an ambulance, an APC, and even a mortar carrier. Despite its thin armor protection the Commando is able to mount a variety of crew-served weapons, from a TOW to a 40mm auto-grenade launcher. This makes it a valuable asset for small militaries.
Spacious enough for 12 passengers, the Commando flourished in multiple low-intensity conflicts from the 1980s to the present, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still in action after 52 years, the Commando is currently manufactured by Textron Systems as the M1117 and enjoys a fair amount of export success.
Could it be the greatest artillery system ever deployed by the US Army?
At a time when militaries around the world, from Germany to Kazakhstan, are introducing new types of artillery, the 53-year-old M109 soldiers on. Introduced in 1963 and exported to US allies and clients, the M109 proved to be a reliable and extremely modular piece of equipment.
With at least 14 variants, M109’s have delivered ordnance in five continents. Its current iteration is the M109A6 Paladin, which is armed with an M284 155mm howitzer. Improvements on the M109A6’s subsystems reduced its original six-man crew to just four and it’s equipped with night vision, air-conditioning, and NBC protection.
The M109 is the preferred self-propelled howitzer of Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Denmark, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Greece, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Peru, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, Tunisia, Turkey, and the UAE.
The M109’s former operators include Belgium, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. In 2013 defense contractor BAE Systems began low rate production of the M109A7, a new variant that will serve well into the 2020s.
The vast majority of armored vehicles can never accomplish what the M113 has. Conceived as an air-transportable troop carrier for the US Army in the 1950s, the original M113 was an aluminum box on tracks.
This dire simplicity was a bane and a boon. The M113 could travel anywhere, but it was vulnerable to land mines, rockets, artillery, and large caliber rounds. This inspired the M113’s continuous evolution that’s ongoing to this day.
Since entering service in 1960, the M113 has either been modified or transformed into an ambulance, a command vehicle, a self-propelled mortar, a self-propelled anti-aircraft system, a light tank, a tank destroyer, an IFV, a “heavy” APC, a “Universal Carrier,” a bulldozer, an amphibious transport, an unmanned transport, and an all-around work horse for mechanized units.
An estimated 80,000 units later, the M113 and its variants are still manufactured by a handful of countries today.
Participating in wars hot and cold for the past 55 years, the M113 is operated by at least 60 countries with thousands kept in storage. M113’s are so plentiful they are used to bolster ties with US allies when exported as military surplus. Although other countries developed APCs that were just as capable, few matched the ubiquity of the M113.
M1 Abrams MBT
When the M1 Abrams was deployed to US armored divisions in Germany it was armed with a typical 105mm smoothbore gun. When the M1A1 arrived in 1986 it rectified this drawback with a 120mm gun and the US Army finally had the ultimate modern tank at its disposal.
Built to house a 1,500 horsepower gas turbine engine and a large angular turret encased in Chobham composite armor, the Abrams’ feats during Desert Storm earned it a mythical invincibility. To this day few Abrams have been lost to enemy fire. When it has been knocked out, it’s usually either by accident or a resort of poor crew training, i.e. the Abrams’ of the Iraqi Army.
The Abrams is held in the same esteem as the British Challenger 2 and the German Leopard 2, although it’s the most battle tested among its peers. It’s a major influence on contemporary tanks as well, its features copied by MBT programs in China, Iran, Italy, and Turkey. It’s worth mentioning South Korea manufactures a former prototype of the Abrams. This is the K1 and its successor the K2, the latter considered the finest MBT in Asia.
The 34-year-old Abrams is now in its fifth variant, the M1A2 SEPv2, and has been converted into a bridgelayer and the menacing Assault Breacher Vehicle used by the Marine Corps. There are no plans to replace it.
The High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle was envisioned as a light transport for the US military when it entered production in 1984. But in the ensuing years it managed to function as a scout car, an ambulance, a truck, a mobile SAM system, a mobile command post, a radar array, a tank destroyer, and an APC. Simply put, if US soldiers needed to travel and fight anywhere, they rode in a Humvee manufactured by AM General.
Unfortunately, the widespread use of improvised bombs and RPGs during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan damaged the Humvee’s reputation. (As well as hundreds of the same vehicles.)
The inherent weaknesses of the Humvee begat the trend in mine-resistant trucks that is now only beginning to ebb. With the JLTV program in full swing, the Humvee now faces obsolescence and replacement. But there is hope. Widely exported to US allies, the Humvee is also copied by different countries.
Japan, South Korea, Spain, Russia, Iran, and China each have their own versions of the Humvee. China in particular is an egregious imitator with its Dongfeng EQ2050. France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Ukraine, and the UAE used the Humvee as a basis for locally made high mobility 4x4s to meet their own requirements and boost defense exports.
The Humvee’s star might have dimmed, but its reign is far from over.
When Bell Helicopter delivered the first UH-1’s to the US Army in 1956, one of the greatest aircraft ever built began its storied career. 60 years and 16,000 helicopters later and the UH-1 is far from contemplating its retirement.
An icon of the Vietnam War, the re-christened UH-1 arrived there in 1963 and took on every conceivable role from medevac to close air support. But the Huey was best known for ferrying troops from their bases to the field. The UH-1 remained in US Army aviation until 2011 and also served in the US Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps.
Bell continues manufacturing the Huey as the UH-1Y and a strong demand exists for surplus birds among many countries. Even the US military’s leadership sees a role for the UH-1 in the next 30 years and perhaps longer.
Few aircraft have as rich a photographic and cinematic heritage as the UH-1. When historians look back on the wars fought in the previous century, they’ll realize the UH-1 and its variants changed the way the US military fought on the ground and in the air.
Since 1978 Sikorsky’s UH-60 has performed as the leading utility helicopter for the US Army. A navalized variant was also developed for the US Navy. 2,300 UH-60’s have been manufactured in the last 38 years and 1,600 are used by the US Army. Owing to its sterling record, its production lifespan is projected to reach the 2030s and beyond.
Just as capable and better protected than the UH-1 it was replacing, the UH-60 has deployed to every theater where US forces operate, from the Balkans to East Asia. Unlike other utility helicopters, the UH-60 is a mean fighter as well thanks to its GAU-18 miniguns for close air support.
During the previous decade the UH-60 became the preferred insertion and extraction helicopter for US special forces. The UH-60 enjoys strong demand today, especially among countries looking for a top shelf utility helicopter with a broad range of capabilities.
The original Cobra that arrived in 1966 won’t pass muster with today’s gunships. But the single engine Cobra gave more than it took in Vietnam and beyond, performing a bewildering variety of missions that would put most helicopters to shame.
The US government was very generous with its premier attack helicopter before the arrival of the AH-64 Apache. The Cobra was exported to many allied countries that still operate it today, including embattled Iran.
Currently serving as a gunship and close air support provider for the Marine Corps, Bell hasn’t given up on the Cobra. Its current incarnation is the AH-1Z equipped with two General Electric T700-GE-401 engines. Its armaments now include hardpoints for AIM-9 Sidewinders and Hellfire missiles.
Variants of the Cobra are in service with Bahrain, Iran, Israel, Japan, Jordan, South Korea, Pakistan,Thailand, Turkey, and Taiwan.
The attack helicopter being a distinctively American innovation, the success of the Cobra inspired a far more lethal counterpart.
Designed as a tank killer that would prowl the tree tops of Central Europe, the AH-64 broke new ground in helicopter engineering. It unofficially provided the template for other attack helicopters, influencing their layout, appearance, and role. Armed with a deadly combination of Hydra rockets, Hellfire missiles, and a 30mm cannon, the AH-64 is ideal for close air support and destroying ground targets in general.
It’s also the most numerous of its kind*, with the US Army operating 900 and many sold to allies like Egypt, Greece, Israel, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Taiwan, the Netherlands, and the UK. In recent years India, Indonesia, Iraq, Taiwan, and the UAE have either placed orders or received brand new AH-64E’s.
*The Russian Mi-24/Mi-35 was built in larger numbers but it’s a gunship designed to carry troops and not a gunship per se.
The reigning misfit of the US Air Force was an odd bird from the very start. With aircraft design coinciding with the digital age and the looming threat of thermonuclear armageddon, a team at Fairchild Republic Co. designed an airplane the world had never seen.
What became the A-10 Thunderbolt, which was first delivered to the USAF in 1975, was a low altitude ground attack aircraft with an enormous seven barrel 30mm gatling cannon on its nose. The fearsome GAU-8 Avenger was installed beneath the titanium armored cockpit for strafing runs that would annihilate enemy armor and fortifications with a stream of depleted uranium rounds.
Of course, the A-10 could also carry bombs, rockets, and missiles. Even with its impressive name the Thunderbolt was eventually dubbed the “Warthog” for its practical ugliness. After wreaking havoc in Desert Storm and the War on Terror the A-10’s continued service was endangered. Wanting to trim its inventory in the name of budget cuts the USAF contemplated retiring the A-10.
But the 40-year-old A-10 kept on fighting and deployed to the Middle East again in late 2014 for air strikes against the Islamic State. In 2015 the House Armed Services Committee approved plans to maintain the current fleet of 283 A-10 Thunderbolt II’s.
A completely superb aircraft, the F-15 and its subsequent variants qualify as the finest tactical fighters of the jet age. After 40 years of service there is no mission it can’t perform and to date not a single F-15 has been shot down by enemy aircraft. Its genesis can be traced to the USAF’s obscure FX program in the mid-1960s.
Considering the threat posed by overwhelming numbers of Soviet MiGs the USAF needed an all-weather fighter that could reap massive kills in any air battle. Although fighters like the F-4 Phantom and the F-8 Crusader were formidable platforms, an even better model was required. The first F-15A’s were delivered by 1976 and since then more than 1,500 have been built.
Improved F-15B, C, and D’s soon followed and as US air power became a staple of foreign interventions the F-15 has enjoyed continuous use. Today only critical US allies are allowed to acquire F-15’s. These are Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.
The USAF and Air National Guard currently fly more than 500 F-15’s including the F-15E variant meant for striking ground targets. Hostile countries must always bear in mind that as long as the US keeps its monopoly on F-15’s, their airspace will never be safe.
With 4,400 models manufactured by Boeing and foreign clients the F-16 Falcon is the most successful multirole fighter in the world.
Originally conceived in the 1970s as a nimble and cost-effective single engine day fighter, the F-16 entered service by 1979 and became NATO’s first line of defense against Soviet MiG swarms. Now 35-years-old, the F-16 is an undisputed jack of all trades, being the go-to fighter for every US air campaign since 1991. Curiously, the F-16 is being flown by each Muslim state battling militants in Iraq, Syria, the Sinai, and Yemen. (Syria and Iran are the exceptions.)
More than 900 F-16’s are deployed with the USAF. The next largest fleet belongs to Israel, which jointly manufactures its F-16I’s. Variants of the F-16 are assembled by Turkey and Japan. Another 24 countries operate the F-16 and new clients emerge every year.
In 2013 Boeing successfully tested the QF-16, a remote piloted F-16 that will perform as an adversary for pilot training. With the F-35 destined to replace it, the F-16 won’t entirely disappear until it’s finally pulled from active duty beyond a decade from now.
Even then, like the peerless F-4 Phantom, it could remain operational with foreign air forces for years.
If anything needs to be delivered somewhere, a C-130 can get the job done. No other transport, medium or otherwise, is as emblematic, dependable, and rugged as Lockheed Martin’s C-130 Hercules. Since 1956 hundreds of these aircraft have hauled US hard power in at least five continents.
The C-130 came about as a requirement for a medium transport in the final year of the Korean War. Designed to lift a whole truck or a tractor, the C-130A was powered by four Allison turboprop engines. As early as then it had a remarkable ability to inspire descriptions like “simple,” “utilitarian,” and “uncomplicated.” It was all these and more.
By the Vietnam War the C-130 was already being used as a bomber–delivering 15,ooo lb Daisy Cutters on landing zones–and an ad hoc gunship. But the C-130 truly became a weapon in 1987 when North American Rockwell filled its cargo bay with large caliber weapons: a 25mm gatling gun, a 40mm cannon, and a 105mm howitzer. This was the original AC-130U Spectre. Today its successor the AC-130J Ghostrider is the closest to a low altitude bomber for special forces.
Different variants of the C-130 are flown by at least 70 countries and the only exceptions are Russia, China, and a dozen odd ex-Soviet states.
The C-130 is ultimate proof that when usefulness and longevity are combined they create what’s irreplaceable.
The US, Russia, and China are the only countries today with genuine long-range bomber fleets. (The UK is nominally part of the same club, having pilots qualified to fly the B-2 Spirit.) But only the US can really boast of having the assets for pounding an enemy to submission from the air.
The 64-year-old B-52 is the apogee of the strategic bombing concept that helped win the last World War 70 years ago. A synthesis of American technological superiority, the Nuclear Age, and the Jet Age, the resulting B-52 arrived at a time when mushroom cloud annihilation preoccupied military thinking. This is why the B-52 qualifies as the first and last bomber of its kind whose range allows it to deliver ordnance across continents.
Within the span of a decade, from 1952 to 1962 Boeing and its partners manufactured 744 B-52’s. Today the USAF’s remaining 76 B-52H’s are dispersed in Louisiana, North Dakota, and Guam. These BUFFs are continuously upgraded for service until 2040–and beyond.
Nimitz-class aircraft carriers
When the nuclear-powered USS Nimitz was commissioned in 1975 it guaranteed US force projection to every corner of the world for the next 40 years. The other nine ships of her class, together with the two current Gerald R. Ford-class flat tops, ensure the high seas are an American domain.
Simply put, if an enemy country needs to be subdued, Nimitz-class carriers deliver the punishment. In the coming years, the Nimitz’s will be serving in tandem with their replacements, the Fords. But the Nimitz-class have decades to go before they disappear for good.
Carrying 85 fixed and rotary wing aircraft–including two F/A-18 Hornet squadrons–and 5,948 crew, Nimitz-class carriers are the only surface vessels that qualify as genuine floating air bases. When the tenth and last Nimitz-class carrier George H.W. Bush was commissioned in 2009 it represented another 40 years of carrier supremacy across the world’s oceans.
It’s difficult to admire the variety of weapons manufactured by the US without sounding hyperbolic. Instead of a witty conclusion, why not glean insights from surveying these killing machines?
For up-and-coming world powers, a strong military requires:
- Nuclear weapons.
- Domestic production of small arms and ammunition.
- A reliable industrial base.
- A strong logistical backbone for all domains, i.e. air, land, and sea.
- Mechanized ground forces.
- Large stockpiles of ordnance and missiles that can destroy targets at extreme range.
- An equally large stockpile of useful vehicles and equipment to replace war time losses.
- At least a few thousand artillery pieces of various calibers.
- Superior aircraft of all types.
- A blue water navy.
It’s obvious the list above are benchmarks established by the US in the mid-20th century. To be honest, these are impossible investments for all except a handful of countries. But God helps those who help themselves and it’s better to dominate one’s neighbors than join the dust bin of history.
The bottom line of US hard power is the invincible nuclear triad devised in the 1950s. This combination of long-range bombers, nuclear submarines (SSBNs), and missile silos was the last resort for America if it faced its own destruction.
Developed to counter a Soviet nuclear attack, the Minuteman-series of ICBMs entered service in 1963 during the Kennedy administration. The Minuteman was a solid propellant ballistic missile that could hit targets 13,000 km away.The improved Minuteman II arrived in 1964 and was followed by the Minuteman III in 1968. By 1978 production ceased for the Minuteman III. Each was an improvement of their predecessor. More than 1,000 Minutemen were built in less than 20 years.
Today the Minuteman III are the last remaining silo-based ICBMs controlled by the US Air Force and since 2007 only 450 remain from the original 550. The Minuteman III is an interesting system, a four-stage ICBM that hovers in low orbit before discharging its single 500 kiloton warhead. The Minuteman III is designed to carry MIRVs, saturating a target with thermonuclear fire, but is only allowed a single payload.
Faced with daunting costs and nuclear arms limitation agreements, the US Air Force intends to keep the Minuteman III operational until 2030 with the likelihood of upgrading it again. This could make it the oldest weapon of mass destruction in existence.