Special Purpose Aircraft

Modern specialized aircraft are often seen as the most innovative and technologically advanced of all aircraft. However, this is ironic considering that the first archaic designs to clatter off the production line and inducted into war were in fact special mission aircraft. Specialized airplanes made their combat debut in the Great War, and were all completely designed around the observation role. Early Bleriot types, for example, would be sent to fly above Triple Alliance forces and identify the size and span of the enemy below, as well as the types of equipment in their possession. In fact, going back to the year 1794, the French became the first to ever field a specialized aircraft of any type, when the French Republican Army made use of balloons in the observation role. The balloons were equipped with a spyglass and could loiter for a long time above the battlefield; just as modern observation aircraft like the OV-10 Bronco gives its pilots radar and can support sustained, long-range flights above the battlefield.

The term "Specialized Aircraft" is in fact a very broad definition, and can apply to any fighter built for a particular purpose. Although other aircraft such as interceptor fighters and troop transports, etc, are also considered specialized, they are present in much greater numbers and variety than other specialized aircraft and are therefore categories of their own. Today, the term "Specialized Aircraft" is used to describe less common, but completely unique aircraft that play a significant role on the battlefield. These aircraft include observation/FAC aircraft, without which an army wouldn't be able to quickly gauge the scope of a battle as OV-10 Broncos proved in the Gulf war, and ASW aircraft, such as the S-3 Viking that can be deployed in large numbers to sink any type of submarine known to man. Below is an overview of these aircraft, their roles, dominant characteristics, and the reasons they can prove invaluable for handling a variety of common/dire battlefield situations.

Most Common Specialized Aircraft

Role: Observation
USAF/USN Designation: O-X (X represents variable numbers)
Characteristics: Observation aircraft can fly far using internal or external fuel, allowing them to "loiter" in the air after locating targets so that they may keep tabs on them before heavier aircraft arrive. Unlike reconnaissance aircraft that also are used to gather intelligence, observation aircraft mainly identify targets visually, not with advanced equipment. Observation aircraft usually equip phosphorous rockets, or designator pods, to "mark" these targets. The Cessna O-2's role in Vietnam was to search for NVA convoys, designate them, and keep them in sight until an AC-130A gunship could show up and finish off the convoy. Some can also be equipped with ground attack weapons and be used as attack aircraft, like some south American OV-10 Broncos. Another feature possessed by observation aircraft is a large canopy in the cockpit to give the pilots an excellent all round view.
Significance: The observation aircraft is given a tough task, having to locate hostile units in hot zones while exposed to fire from both above, and below. However, without these aircraft, the intelligence that troops and officers rely on to stay safe and on top of a combat situation would not be available. OV-10 Broncos are proof of this fact. Marine units under artillery fire are totally defenseless, and call in Broncos to find artillery positions and alert AV-8Bs or F/A-18s to their locations. Observation aircraft are also cheap and numerous, and allow an officer to direct a battle or "see" a situation without more costly or scarce resources being deployed. In Vietnam, Cessna O-1s and O-2s saved the lives of American troops by spotting ambushes and locating howitzer positions manned by Vietcong troops. Observation aircraft have also been useful for political reasons as well as military. The Open Skies program was an agreement between major superpowers, most notably Russia and the U.S.A., to destroy various strategic bombers and other similarly deadly combat aircraft/aerial systems. To ensure that the other countries are keeping their end of the bargain, program members allow each other access to their airspace, so that they may fly over airfields and missile bases to confirm the pre-specified items have been dismantled (Bombers, ICBMs, etc.). The United States uses converted Boeing 707s designated OC-135s to fly over Russian bases. In the past, An-30 Clanks were used by Russia and the Czech Republic for this program, but they have since been replaced by Tu-154 "Careless" aircraft, a type also flown by Germany.
Examples: Cessna O-1 and O-2, Rockwell OV-10 Bronco, OV-1 Mohawk, OA-10 Thunderbolt II, OC-135, and an observation variant of the An-30 Clank.

Role: Reconnaissance
USAF/USN Designation: U-X/R-X (The latter designation is tagged onto aircraft converted from their previous role to serve as reconnaissance platforms)
Characteristics: Reconnaissance aircraft are equipped with sophisticated radar, camera, and sensor equipment, which are usually located in the nose or directly beneath the fuselage. Flying boats and turboprop aircraft were used as reconnaissance aircraft in the past, but modern recon aircraft are designed to fly to high altitudes, with the ability to remain in the air for long periods of time. As a result, the equipment they employ, such as radar and spying technology, generally has a long range. In short, any military aircraft tasked with the duty of collecting information is a reconnaissance aircraft. Civilian types are usually referred to as surveillance aircraft, but each perform the same duties and are indistinguishable in role.
Significance: Reconnaissance aircraft collect the majority of the data military officials depend on to take advantage of unfolding situations. All reconnaissance aircraft specialize in different techniques which can be used to collect data. The Grumman U-16 Albatross served as an amphibious platform during the Vietnam conflict which could float in bodies of water, keeping an eye on Vietcong positions, in areas too dangerous for aircraft to loiter in the sky. Converted RF-101 Voodoos and RA-5 Vigilantes were as instrumental in Vietnam as their fighter/attack counterparts, the former using its high speed to gather intelligence and escaped unharmed. The RA-5 Vigilante had a high load carrying capacity and could operate off aircraft carriers, allowing more equipment to be carried and more flexibility in deployment. American U-2 and Myasischev M-55 aircraft are said by their respective airforces to be used for "monitoring atmospheric pressure" (Translation: Spying), although each are capable of high altitude reconnaissance. The U-2 received much media attention from spotting Soviet missile sites in Cuba and the Gary Powers Incident, in which a U-2 was shot down after "monitoring atmospheric pressure" over secure Soviet military bases.
Examples: An-30 Clank, U-2 Dragon Lady, Myasischev M-55 Geofizika (NATO Codename "Mystic"), Yakovlev Yak-25 Mandrake, Grumman U-16 Albatross

Role: ASW
USAF/USN Designation: S-X
Characteristics: Anti-Submarine warfare aircraft often carry wide, deep fuselages in which weapon bays useful for storing depth charges and torpedoes can be located. They also carry hardpoints on which bombs, Anti-Ship Missiles (ASMs) and electronics equipment can be placed. All fixed wing ASW aircraft are generally designed for long range anti-submarine operations, as shorter range operations can be carried out by specially equipped ASW helicopters.
Significance: ASW aircraft make up an aircraft carriers chief defense against submarines and light ships. While they may not utilize the massive missiles or advanced sensor equipment of patrol aircraft, they are far more versatile and combat is their number-one priority. During the Cold War, the massive submarine fleets of the USSR (Not to mention a large number of nuclear-missile equipped classes) and the technologically advanced submarines of the United States and Great Britain created a vital need for each side to stock up on ASW variants. Famous American author Tom Clancy detailed the extent to which a war between submarine-equipped nations could reach, where submarines could silently stalk and destroy ships virtually unopposed unless specially designed vehicles were used to prevent this. Although ASW aircraft haven't ever fought an unclassified engagement with a submarine, American S-3s were used in the gulf war to drop bombs on Iraqi buildings and other land-based targets. South American S-2s also took part in the Falklands War, operated by Argentinean pilots. The Alize, S-2, and S-3 all operate from carriers or occasionally from land, but Russian ASW aircraft designed by Beriev are fully amphibious.
Examples: Breguet Alize, Grumman S-2 Tracker, Lockheed S-3 Viking, Fairey Gannett, Beriev Be-6 and Be-12.

Role: Special Mission
USAF/USN Designation: E-X
Characteristics: As special mission aircraft utilize electronics, they tend to be large enough to accommodate multiple operators, equipment and computer banks. Smaller special mission aircraft usually carry out ELINT (electronic intelligence) or electronic warfare missions, which are offensive strikes using both physical and psychological means to accomplish a goal. Large under-fuselage or over-fuselage antenna arrays, rotating disc arrays, and "bulges" (Enlarged portions of the fuselage containing sensory or avionics equipment) are always found on these aircraft, some more noticeable than others. Significance: Electronic warfare/Special Mission aircraft look to technology, especially their mighty radar and electronic systems, to turn the tide of the battlefield situation. These aircraft undertake jamming missions, anti-radar operations, hack into enemy broadcasts, and other offensive duties. On the other end of the scale, they also excel at defensive missions, protecting aircraft from jamming, locating incoming aircraft or ground forces, and serving as a communications relay aircraft. The IL-38 May aircraft was one of the USSR's longest serving ELINT and AEW&C (Airborne Early Warning & Control) aircraft, used for border patrol and to survey "hot" areas such as East Germany to keep an eye on NATO forces and their allies, being replaced by the larger but more potent Beriev A-50 Mainstay. Many countries have converted transport aircraft into AEW&C aircraft, such as Sweden's Saab 100, the Netherlands Fokker Fellowship, and Australia's US-built E-737 Wedgetail. American EC-130 Rivet Riders are one of the most advanced special mission aircraft ever built, tasked with invading enemy channels during wartime and broadcasting propaganda messages.
Examples: IAI Phalcon, EA-6, Dassault Falcon, Boeing E-4, E-6, E-8 Joint STARS, A-50 Mainstay, Embraer EMB-110 Bandeirante, Yak-28 Brewer E, and the Il-20 Coot.

Role: Aerial Refueling/Air Tanker
USAF/USN Designation: K-X
Characteristics: Tanker aircraft carry a widened fuel bay, and depending on the type of aircraft they will refuel, a flying boom or a probe and drogue system. The flying booms are fixed metal apertures used to refuel aircraft, while the probe and drogues are retractable apertures resembling hoses. Although several light military types have been converted to tankers, such as the KA-6 Intruder, mainly large cargo airplanes or civilian transports such as the Il-76 (Il-78M Midas Tanker Variant) or Douglas DC-10 (KC-10 Extender) are converted to tankers.
Significance: Many military aircraft, especially attack aircraft, have a very poor range. Underfuselage and drop-tanks can solve this problem to an extent, but generate drag and add extra weight. By having tankers refuel aircraft in mid-air, their range may be extended without compromising their combat ability. Also, as even with drop tanks or auxiliary fuel tanks military aircraft generally cannot fly very far, aerial tankers allow aircraft to deploy overseas or across thousands of miles, distances they would not be able to even fathom covering on their own. The world's first tankers were KB-29 Superfortresses, which proved invaluable but served in small numbers. The first extremely innovative tanker was Boeing's KC-135, a converted 707 airliner modified to carry a flying boom. KC-135s served in enormous numbers and proved irreplaceable over Vietnam, enabling transport aircraft to resupply military bases over long distances. More recent tankers such as the RAF Tristar and USAF KC-10 Extender can carry huge loads of fuel, much more than the KC-135, enabling them to refuel aircraft several times in one flight even when flying long ranges. These tankers also equip both flying-boom and probe-and-drogue systems, which boost their versatility. In Operation Desert Storm, hundreds of tankers served to allow aircraft to fly from bases in Britain, the United States, Germany, and other areas to the gulf.
Examples: Il-78M Midas, KC-97, KC-135, KC-10, converted Vickers VC.10s, KB-29/50 Superfortress, and Tristar K. Mark 1.

Role: Maritime Patrol
USAF/USN Designation: P-X (NOTE: Not to be confused with older pursuit aircraft)
Characteristics: Maritime patrol aircraft are more focused on possessing range, equipment and personnel than with speed or armament. However, many patrol aircraft do carry anti-ship missiles to use against ships or submarines, and UK Nimrods even have the capability to carry air-to-air missiles for self defence. Many favour turboprops for their range and fuel economy, but newer examples such as the P-8 Poseidon wield turbofan engines and large fuel tanks. Their main role is a combination of visual observation and over/under sea reconnaissance using electronic equipment. Therefore, they carry radar, sensor, and SONAR equipment to locate threats.
Significance: Maritime patrol aircraft allow a country to monitor events occurring over, and under, the surface of the waves. As over two thirds the surface of the Earth is covered by water, many countries support navies. Maritime patrol aircraft can be used to "scout" ahead of ships to locate submarines, mines, hostile ships, or similar objects. Upon discovering a hostile, they usually will radio for specialized MH-53E Sea Dragon, Ka-27 Helix, S-3 Viking, or Beriev aircraft to disarm/subdue the threat. Some patrol aircraft, such as P-3 Orions, carry ASMs to destroy targets with, although they are most effective when a friendly submarine is available to illuminate the target. However, P-3 Orions, BAe Nimrods, and similarly aged patrol aircraft are slowly being retired, as although they are cheap to deploy in theory, their aging airframes require hours of maintenance between flights. This rule especially applies to the P-3, which recently is spending more time undergoing maintenance than being deployed. Soviet-built Tu-141 Bear patrol aircraft have been used extensively by Russia and India, and unlike most patrol aircraft, rely more on their offensive capabilities than on technology to be successful in combat. Although a large, powerful platform, the Tu-141's extremely loud turboprop engines have been detected by submarine SONAR on multiple occasions.
Examples:Breguet Atlantique, P-3 Orion, P-8 Poseidon, Avro Shackleton, BAe Nimrod, Tu-141.

Although the above types are by far as notorious as they are potent, other less-well known (and less effective) types of specialized aircraft exist and have been deployed into various conflicts with varying degrees of success. One of the best examples of these was the drone carrier aircraft. Drone carriers would fly to or slightly past the front lines of battle, and release drone aircraft to spy on enemy positions. When the drones ran out of fuel and crashed, helicopters would be sent to recover them. In Vietnam, this technique was carried out with DC-130s to gather intel on NVA positions without risking pilots. Each DC-130 could hold a total of four drones, allowing four missions to be carried out per DC-130 flight. However, drones were often rocket powered and had very little range, and sometimes didn't even reach their target before their fuel supply was depleted. They could also be badly damaged when crashing. The introduction of long-ranged UAV drones replaced their aircraft-based counterparts, who lacked the technological advancements and ergonomic design possessed by new land-based drones.

Another less-known type of specialized aircraft is the water-bomber. Russian Beriev Be-200s can be used for both civilian and military applications, from a forest fire to a blazing hangar. They are also fully amphibious, and can refill their water tank while floating on the water, after which they will proceed to their target and "bomb" it with foam, water, or special firefighting chemicals. Grumman S-2 Trackers were converted into the "Turbo Firecat" version (The "Firecat" designation is used in honour of Grumman's many aircraft named after felines) and mainly serves with civilian forces. Search and Rescue (SAR)/Medical Evacuation aircraft such as the C-9 Nightingale are also famous for rescuing hundreds of troops (In the C-9's case from Vietnam) and bringing them to safer airbases where they could receive medical treatment. Also used to support troops, but in an entirely different fashion, are communications aircraft. RC-12 Guardrails carry out COMINT (COMmunications INTelligence) missions, in which they intercept enemy communications and convey any useful information to ground troops, which was instrumental in Operation Desert Storm for dealing with massed Iraqi tank formations. SR-71s use a different but still effective method, capturing enemy positions on-screen using powerful camera and electronics equipment, and utilizing it to both direct troops and survey high-value targets. Unlike reconnaissance aircraft, communications aircraft usually work in co-ordination with ground forces, passing them collected intelligence.

Written by: Pace51