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Fighter Aircraft

Fighter Aircraft. Fighters are aircraft intended to win air superiority by destroying enemy aircraft. The term is generally applied to those aircraft designed to have sufficient performance to destroy enemy aircraft. However, as a result of the threat posed by strategic bombers during and after World War II—and particularly after the development of atomic weaponry—a specialized class of fighter, called the interceptor, was developed specifically to counter the bomber threat. Most fighters are small single seat aircraft powered by one or two engines. Interceptors, however, typically have more than one crewman, and tend to be larger and heavier, with longer range. Another category of fighter is the fighter‐bomber, which is capable of participating in the air superiority war, but then, when air superiority is no longer an issue, is capable of being applied as a ground attack airplane. Over time, from World War I to the present, the fighter has gone from a 70 mph frail open‐cockpit wood‐and‐fabric airplane to a Mach 2+ jet‐propelled aircraft capable of carrying a sophisticated array of electronics and precision weapons.

Fighters, originally termed “fighting scouts,” initially appeared in World War I. They were developed to counter the emergence of the reconnaissance aircraft, which, as early as 1914, had proven so valuable to ground commanders that a means had to be developed to deny one's airspace to the prying eyes of enemy airmen. Development of particular technologies to support the emergence of the fighter—specifically the synchronized forward‐firing machine gun—was swift. Indeed, from 1914 through 1918, five clear generations of fighter aircraft were produced, the latter of which were rudimentary all‐metal monoplane designs by the German designer Hugo Junkers. By 1916, control of the air was a vital prerequisite for the success of any other air operations. As a rule, the Allies on the Western Front were successful in maintaining control of the air throughout the war, to the detriment of their Central Powers opponents. By 1918, the first “swing‐role” air‐to‐air and air‐to‐ground fighter aircraft—the predecessors of the fighter‐bombers of World War II—were in service, initially with Great Britain's Royal Flying Corps (the predecessor of today's Royal Air Force). These aircraft proved terribly destructive in attacks on enemy ground forces. In Palestine, such attacks at the battle of Wadi al Far’a were responsible for the destruction of a Turkish army and laid open the path to Damascus. Specialized doctrine was developed by leading air power teachers and practitioners during the war to govern fighter operations; notable figures include Oswald Boelcke, a great exponent of defensive air warfare, and Edward “Mick” Mannock, the most noteworthy of offensive fighter proponents. American fighter pilots, who flew British or French‐designed fighters, established an excellent record for the brief time that they were in combat operations during the war. Notable American fighter pilots included “balloon buster” Frank Luke and America's Great War “Ace of aces” Eddie Rickenbacker. An ace is an individual who has downed five aircraft in aerial combat.

In the years between World War I and the outbreak of World War II, the fighter underwent progressive refinement that matched that of aviation in general. Metal replaced wood in aircraft structures, the monoplane layout replaced the biplane, and a variety of specialized refinements were incorporated in fighter design. These included addition of radio communication, better optical gunsights, multiple guns, a streamlined design approach, internal structural bracing, refined aerodynamics including the provision of wing flaps and, in some cases, wing leading edge slats or slots, retractable landing gears, and high performance air‐cooled radial piston engine or liquid‐cooled inline engines enclosed within smooth cowling shapes. Such refinements first appeared—to a greater or lesser degree—in the early 1930's on such aircraft as the Polish PZL P‐7, the French Morane Saulnier MS‐406, the Soviet Polikarpov I‐16, the American P‐35, the Japanese Nakajima Ki‐27, the British Hawker Hurricane, and the German Messerschmitt Bf 109 (popularly known as the Me 109). But by 1939, many of the world's fighter forces—including that of the United States—still had a large number of biplane fighters in service. Such was particularly true for the U.S. navy, where the slow landing speeds of such aircraft made them well‐suited to the small size of prewar aircraft carriers. Interwar conflicts such as the Spanish Civil War and the Sino‐Japanese War confirmed the superiority of newer aircraft technology, but also offered mixed signals that encouraged biplane designers to remain fixed in their thinking for far too long.

The fighter's influence on World War II was profound. The opening Nazi and Japanese attacks benefited greatly from fighters that seized air superiority, preventing their opponents from contesting control of the air, and allowing Axis ground movements to proceed without much threat of Allied intervention. During the Battle of Britain (1940), British fighter pilots literally saved Great Britain from destruction at the hands of Nazi Germany, the first time that a nation's fate had been determined by air warfare. Notable American fighter aircraft of World War II included the Republic P‐47 Thunderbolt and the Vought F4U Corsair, both outstanding air‐to‐air fighters and formidable ground attackers; the North American P‐51 Mustang, the finest and most refined all‐around propeller‐driven fighter of World War II; and the Northrop P‐61 Black Widow, a specialized radar‐equipped night fighter that anticipated the sophisticated interceptors of the post‐1945 period. During the war, fighter speeds increased to over 400 mph, and armament went from two or four small machine guns to up to eight .50 caliber machine guns. German fighter designers, confronting the challenge of the Allies' strategic bomber offensive, emphasized heavy cannon armament, including installations of up to four 30mm cannon firing explosive shells. But Allied fighter operations swept the German air service—and Japan's as well—from the skies, rendering both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan vulnerable to highly destructive strategic bomber attacks. Allied fighters next turned to shattering Axis ground movement through wide‐ranging fighter sweeps deep into enemy territory.

The German introduction of the turbojet engine and moderate wing sweepback to improve high‐speed flight performance was matched by Allied developments. Though no jet‐versus‐jet combat took place during the war, both Germany and Great Britain fielded jet fighters in service. The United States' first jet fighter, the Lockheed F‐80 (initially P‐80) Shooting Star, entered service in 1945. The first American sweptwing jet fighter, the graceful North American F‐86 Sabre, followed the F‐80 into service in 1948. During the Korean War, Sabres met the Soviet Union's Mikoyan and Gurevich MiG‐15 in combat over the Yalu, establishing a kill ratio of over 10‐1. Korea also marked the last war in which American ground forces lost personnel from enemy air attack.

The technological developments of the 1940's and 1950's radically transformed the American fighter. The Air Force fixed on a supersonic future, with fighters becoming nuclear bomb droppers or specialized anti‐bomber interceptors armed with sophisticated air‐to‐air radar‐guided or heat‐seeking missiles. As a result, virtually all of the so‐called “Century series” fighters—for example the F‐101, F‐102, F‐104, F‐105, and F‐106—were dedicated to missions in these roles. Only the F‐100 was a true swingrole airplane for both conventional war in the tradition of the Second World War's P‐47 or Corsair. For its part, the U.S. navy, shocked by its failure to develop a carrier‐based fighter capable of confronting the MiG in Korea, embarked on a rigorous development program that led to the two finest fighters of mid‐century: the Vought F‐8 Crusader, and the McDonnell F‐4 Phantom II. Both represented differing design philosophies: the F‐8, a single‐seat agile “dogfighter” with primarily a gun armament, and the F‐4 a two‐seat missile‐armed fighter with a large radar and (initially) no gun armament. The Air Force ordered the F‐4 with some modifications for its own use, and it became the premier American fighter for all three fighter services—the Air Force, navy, and Marine Corps, by the mid‐1960's.

Because of a lack of emphasis on teaching basic skills, the overemphasis on relatively benign missile shots at opponents, the basic limitations of early air‐to‐air missiles, and controversial rules of engagement, American fighter pilots in the Vietnam War did not achieve the same level of success that their predecessors had in previous conflicts. By the late 1960's, these problems were so apparent that they had spawned two responses: greater emphasis upon fighter pilot training, and greater emphasis upon designing genuine air‐superiority fighters. The former could be done relatively quickly, and the pronounced success of American pilots in air combat over North Vietnam during 1972 attests to the great success that refined training had. The latter, however, required considerably lengthier and complex efforts. However, it spawned a category of “superfighters” that still define the modern standards of fighter excellence: The Grumman F‐14 Tomcat, the McDonnell‐Douglas F‐15 Eagle, the General Dynamics F‐16 Fighting Falcon, and the McDonnell‐Douglas F‐18 Hornet. What made these aircraft possible were more powerful engines, advanced structural materials, improved instrumentation, and, above all, a single‐minded dedication to emphasizing the ability of these aircraft to engage and defeat more numerous enemies.

The coupling of the above aircraft technologies with advances in air‐to‐air missile design, exemplified by the Raytheon AIM‐9L Sidewinder of the late 1970's meant that, for the first time, a missile‐armed fighter could engage an opponent with the expectations of success that advocates had long anticipated. This was first clearly shown in two conflicts: the Falklands War between Great Britain and Argentina, where AIM‐9L‐armed British Harriers dominated more numerous Argentinean opponents, preventing the destruction of the British fleet that sailed to liberate the islands; and the Israeli‐Syrian war over the Bekaa Valley, where Israeli F‐15 and F‐16 pilots destroyed over eighty aircraft without suffering a loss in air‐to‐air combat.

Paralleling this improvement in air superiority fighter operations came developments in ground attack ones. The coupling of the laser‐guided precision munition with an airborne laser designator, with advanced space‐based navigation such as the Global Positioning System (GPS) and advanced sensor technology now meant that a precision fighter dropping a single high‐explosive bomb could achieve destructive effects equivalent to many hundreds of conventional World War II bombers. During that war, to guarantee a single bomb hit on a specific 60‐by‐90 foot target required 108 B‐17 bombers dropping 648 bombs. In the Persian Gulf War, a single fighter bomber, dropping a single laser‐guided bomb, sufficed. Precision attacks against both strategic and tactical targets paralyzed the Iraqi regime and set the stage for the destruction of Saddam Hussein's ill‐conceived occupation of Kuwait.

The emergence of airborne early warning aircraft, sophisticated command and control, and advanced space‐based navigation and communications have greatly improved the efficiency of the modern fighter. Today, beyond this, lies the incorporation of so‐called “stealth” or low observable technology, sensor fusion, and advanced integration of aircraft systems. The first air combat stealth fighter—the F‐22A—is under development, and expected to enter service after the turn of the century. (It is important to distinguish this aircraft from the popularly known F‐117 stealth fighter which, despite the name, is really a specialized attack aircraft.) Without question, the enduring lesson of air warfare is that without air superiority, all other air operations are impossible; in the modern world, air superiority is the guarantor of success. To that end, the purpose and value of the fighter is unbroken, from Flanders in 1915 to Iraq in 1991 and beyond.
[See also Air Force Combat Organizations: Strategic Air Forces; Air Force Combat Organizations: Tactical Air Forces; Bomber Aircraft; Stealth Aircraft.]

Richard P. Hallion

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Aircraft, Fighter


AIRCRAFT, FIGHTER. The first American-built fighter, the Thomas-Morse MB-1 Scout, appeared in 1919. The U.S. Army relied on the Curtiss Hawk series until 1930, when the army switched to the Boeing P-26. As world tension generated technical advances, the army switched to the Republic P-35 and the Curtiss P-36 (Hawk 75), all-metal, low-wing monoplanes with enclosed cockpits, retractable landing gear, and heavier armament.

The Army Air Corps's interest in aircraft with close-support and coast defense roles retarded development of U.S. fighters, so that the standard fighters—the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk (1940) and the Bell P-39 Airacobra (1941)—were obsolescent when the United States entered World War II. The first advanced U.S. fighter (ordered 1939) was the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, a twin-engine, 414 mph, twin-tailed plane. The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt (1943), used in the ground-support role, was the only radial-engined fighter of the Army Air Force (AAF). Perhaps the war's best fighter, the North American P-51 Mustang, was in British service, where it excelled in a variety of roles before the AAF's need for bomber escorts brought widespread American use. The Northrop P-61 Black Widow (1943) was the first American plane specifically designed as a night fighter.

Unlike Britain and Germany, the United States used no jet aircraft during World War II, although it had begun jet development. The first U.S. jet, the Bell XP-59 Aira-comet (1943), was capable of only 418 mph and was soon relegated to a training role. The Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star (553 mph) was the AAF's fastest World War II fighter, but it arrived too late for combat. The last AAF propeller fighter, the P-82 Twin Mustang, saw service in Korea.

The Republic F-84 Thunderjet, the first postwar fighter, evolved into the 693 mph F-84F Thunderstreak, which the Strategic Air Command (SAC) used for escort groups until 1957 and which served as the main fighter-bomber of the Tactical Air Command (TAC) until the F-100C. The North American F-86 Sabre, the Lockheed F-94, and the Northrop F-89 Scorpion overcame the effects of compressibility, used an afterburner, and added night and all-weather capability, respectively.

The Air Force ordered its first supersonic aircraft in the early 1950s. The Century series consisted of the North American F-100 Super Sabre, McDonnell Douglas F-101A Voodoo, Convair F-102 Delta Dagger, and the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. The TAC's first fighter with a bomb bay—the Republic F-105 Thunderchief—was delivered in 1956. Other attack aircraft included the Vought A-7D Corsair II; the Northrop F-5 series; and the Cessna A-37. The Convair 1,526 mph F-106 Delta Dart, an almost fully automatic fighter, appeared in 1956.

A new generation of aircraft began to appear in the 1960s. The first, the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II series (1963), performed both as interceptor and attack plane. Two additional fighters, the General Dynamics F-111, an all-weather fighter-bomber, and the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle, replaced the Phantom II. The Eagle (1974) entered service as the air force's frontline fighter. The F-14 Tomcat (1974) entered service as the navy's leading carrier-based, multirole fighter. The versatile General Dynamics (Lockheed Martin after 1992) F-16 Fighting Falcon (1979), designed for air superiority, gradually adopted air support and tactical strike roles. The versatile all-weather F/A-18 Hornet, the nation's first strike-fighter, primarily provided fleet air defense and fighter escort. The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, introduced in 1995, added a new long-range, all-weather, multimission strike-fighter to the navy's arsenal.


Craven, Wesley F., and James L. Cate, eds. The Army Air Forces in World War II. Volume 6, Men and Planes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.

Wagner, Ray. American Combat Planes. 3d enl. ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968.

Waters, Andrew W. All the U.S. Air Force Airplanes. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1983.

WarnerStark/c. w.

See alsoAir Force, United States ; Air Power, Strategic ; Aircraft Carriers and Naval Aircraft ; Aircraft, Bomber ; Aircraft Industry ; Navy, United States .

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