The bomb bay or weapons bay on some military aircraft is a compartment to carry bombs, usually in the aircraft's fuselage, with "bomb bay doors" which open at the bottom. The bomb bay doors are opened and the bombs are dropped when over the target or at a specified launching point.
Large-sized bombs, which may be nuclear, are dropped from hook-type releases or bomb cradles. When a bomber carries many smaller bombs (e.g. iron bombs, JDAMs), the bombs are typically loaded onto mechano-electrical devices known as ejector racks, which allow for larger bomb loads to be dropped with greater accuracy.
Guided missiles (frequently standoff missiles) are often carried in the bomb bays of modern aircraft; the missiles are dropped from the aircraft and then accelerate into autonomous flight while the bomber aircraft "stands off" at a safe distance from the target.
Bomb bays were born of necessity. Early military aircraft suffered severe aerodynamic drag (which would further slow down the already lumbering bomb-laden aircraft) with bombs hanging from the wings or below the fuselage, so military aviation designers moved the bombs inside the aircraft.
Before the introduction of stealth technology bomb bays were mostly used by dedicated bomber aircraft; in fighters and attack airplanes bombs and rockets were hung from the wings or fuselage. Notable exceptions are the F-101, F-102 and F-106 interceptor aircraft, all of which had bays used to store missiles, or other weapons stores. Today many designers have moved previously "external" stores into internal multifunction "weapons bays" capable of carrying air-to-air missiles, air-to-ground missiles, drop tanks, and other military "stores" and deploying them rapidly in a battle. The principal reason for the change is to use stealth technology to make aircraft more difficult to detect. Military fighters are now designed to have the smallest possible radar cross-section, which has decreased very substantially since attention was paid to this feature. Large racks of missiles and bombs hanging below the wings return very distinct radar signatures which can be eliminated by bringing the weapons inside the fuselage. This also improves aerodynamic performance and increases the payload which can be carried. Examples of modern U.S. fighters with weapons bays are the F-117 Nighthawk, F-22 Raptor, and F-35 Lightning II.
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