Role: Fighter aircraft are used in air-to-air combat (offensive or defensive) or attacks and weaponized with machine guns, cannons, rockets, or missiles. They require speed and maneuverability. Subcategories include: air superiority fighter and interceptor aircraft. Air superiority aircraft are designed to capture and control enemy airspace. Control of the air comes in three levels: air supremacy (the highest level in which one side controls 100% of airspace), air superiority (in which one side holds a majority, or 60% and above), and air parity (equal control of the skies). Air superiority can be accomplished by destroying enemy aircraft in the air during combat or when grounded, as well as any preventing them from using anti-air defenses.
Before the 1950s, aircraft were weaponized with guns and cannons. So as to effectively target the opponent, the pilot had to skillfully maneuver the fighter to certain angles in order to lock into a positional advantage (behind or above). These tactics are known as basic fight maneuvers (BFMs) – including quick turns, barrel rolls, and so on. The engagement of aircraft in combat while airborne is known as a dogfight, or air combat maneuvering. Although still important, adept maneuvering is becoming less essential to prevailing over an opponent. Due to advances in beyond visual range (BVR) missile capabilities and all-aspect infrared or radar homing missiles (which can be launched without being in a necessarily advantageous position), a pilot now only needs to focus on getting within range of a target.
Fighters are able to carry a variety of payloads including bombs, rockets, torpedoes, and guns. However, by the 1960s, missiles were the prevailing weaponry aboard these aircraft. Air-to-air missiles can be categorized as short-range (SRAAM) or within visual range (WVR) or medium-/long-range (M/LRAAM) or BVR. Missile guidance systems typically use radar (detecting an enemy’s radar emissions, radar guidance is typically used for M/LRAAMs), infrared homing (detecting an enemy’s heat emissions – such as from the frictional aircraft surface or heat exhaust, IR can be easily distracted by any hot object – the sun, flares dropped by the target, etc.), electro-optical imaging (using sensors on a missile to detect the physical aircraft itself), and anti-radiation (detecting an enemy’s radio emissions).
Interceptors are designed to interfere with the progress of enemy aircraft – typically in a point defense (protecting a specific target, like an airbase) or area defense (protecting a larger region). Point defense interceptors were capable of rapidly climbing altitudes but were less maneuverable than superiority fighters. Area defense aircraft were larger and capable of sustained missions in inclement weather. The use of interceptors peaked during the Cold War. Since the development of ballistic missiles, the defense capabilities of dedicated interceptor aircraft has become obsolete and their use by the U.S. military is minimal. Rather than building aircraft exclusively as interceptors, other fighter aircraft are adapted for intercepting roles.
Models in Service:
United States Air Force (USAF), United States Marine Corps (USMC), United States Navy (USN)
|NAME||BRANCH||VARIANTS||QUANTITY||MANUFACTURER||NOTES/CAPABILITIES IN BRIEF|
|F-15 Eagle||USAF||F-15C||22||Boeing||Initially designed and produced by McDonnell Douglas, the F-15 Eagle tactical fighter jet is used by the U.S. Air Force to gain air superiority over enemy units. Powered by two Pratt & Whitney F-100-PW-100 turbofan engines providing 25,000 pounds of thrust each, the F-15 reaches top speeds of 1,875 miles per hour. Though the first Eagle was delivered to the U.S. Air Force in 1974, about 249 are still deployed by the branch. For armament, the F-15 Eagle is fitted with an internally-mounted 20mm M-61A1 Gatling gun, four externally-loaded Raytheon AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, and four to eight Raytheon AIM-120 air-to-air missiles. The U.S. Air Force has no plans to retire the F-15. Boeing/McDonnell Douglas has produced over 1,600 units of the F-15 Eagle fighter over the years.|
|F-15E Strike Eagle||USAF||F-15E||219||Boeing||Based on the legacy McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle tactical fighter plane, the F-15E Strike Eagle builds upon the proven systems of the original Eagle. Designed and produced by Boeing, the Strike Eagle is a dual-role fighter specializing in advanced long-range interdiction missions. Powered by two Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-229 low-bypass turbofan engines supplying 29,000 pounds of thrust each, the Strike Eagle can quickly accelerate from idle to afterburner phase in less than four seconds. For countermeasures, the Strike Eagle is integrated with Raytheon’s APG-70 radar suite which includes high-resolution ground-mapping to augment the crew’s situational awareness. For armament, the F-15E carries a 23,000-pound payload comprising of a deadly suite of AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM), the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) air-to-ground weapon, and the AIM-9X Sidewinder missile.|
|F-16 Fighting Falcon||USAF||F-16C/D||827||Lockheed Martin||In 1979, the first Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon was delivered to the 228th Tactical Fighter Wing squadron based at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. Powered by a single Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-200/220/229 or General Electric F110-GE-100/129 engine, the F-16 multi-role fighter jet can fly to a 50,000-feet ceiling for over 1,740 nautical miles. The F-16 Fighting Eagle is a major component of America’s post-9/11 “Global War on Terrorism,” having flown thousands of sorties in Afghanistan and Iraq. For armament, the F-16 Fighting Falcon carries a payload consisting of a General Electric M-61A1 20mm six-barreled Gatling cannon which fires 6,000 rounds a minute.|
|F-22 Raptor||USAF||F-22A||178||Lockheed Martin||Produced by Lockeed Martin, the F-22A Raptor advanced air superiority fighter first deployed with the U.S. Air Force in 2005. The aircraft’s birth stems from the winning prototype of the U.S. Air Force’s 1991 Advanced Tactical Fighter competition. In 2009, the production of new Raptor units was officially terminated by the Pentagon in favor of the new F-35 joint strike fighter. Powered by two Pratt & Whitney F119-100 low-bypass turbofan engines with afterburners, the F-22 Raptor can supercruise at speeds of Mach 1.7 at a 60,000-feet ceiling. For armament, the Raptor is fitted with eight Boeing GBU-39 precision-guided, small diameter bombs capable of hitting individual targets within a 50-mile radius.|
|F-35 Lightning II||USAF||F-35A||14||Lockheed Martin||The result of the winning design of the multinational Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program, the F-35 Lightning II single-seat stealth multirole fighter jet is a 5th Generation fighter optimized to complete intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions in addition to its combat role. The aircraft is produced in three variants: F-35A for conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL); F-35B for short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL); and F-35C for carrier-based CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Delivery) operations. For engaging enemies, the F-35 is fitted with an internally-mounted, 25mm General Dynamics GAU-22/A Equalizer gun. Backed by a single Pratt & Whitney F135-PW-100 two-spool afterburning turbofan engine, the F-35 can achieve an immediate thrust of 128.1kN for short take-offs.|
|AV-8B Harrier II||USMC||AV-8B (VTOL)||99||Boeing||The AV-8B Harrier II is a fighter aircraft distinctive for its V/STOL (vertical and/or short take-off and landing) capabilities. Powered by a single Rolls-Royce Pegasus F402-RR-408 turbofan engine providing 20,280 pounds of thrust, the Harrier gains altitude at a rate of 14,700 feet a minute. It flies at a maximum speed of 1,083 kilometers per hour for a combat radius of 556 kilometers and a normal range of 2,574 kilometers. The Harrier is fitted with a deadly payload consisting of Raytheon’s AIM120A Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM), Sparrow missiles, AGM-65 air-to-surface tactical missle, Boeing’s Harpoon anti-ship missile, MBDA’s Sea Eagle anti-ship missiles, and a 25mm cannon.|
|F-5F/N Tiger II||USN||F-5F||3||Northrop Grumman||Though its maiden flight took place in 1972, the F-5 Tiger II remains operational in the U.S. Navy’s fleet. Designed and produced by Northrop Grumman, the F- Tiger II is a dual-engined single-pilot supersonic fighter jet that saw much action during the Cold War. Backed by twin General Electric J85-GE-21B turbojet engines producing 5,000 pounds of thrust each, the F-5 Tiger II can climb to an operational ceiling of over 50,000 feet at speeds of 1,700 kilometers an hour. To engage enemies, the F-5 Tiger II is nose-mounted with two Pontiac M39 20mm single-barreled cannons that fire 1,500 rounds a minute, and carries a payload of four Raytheon AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seeking air-to-air missiles and two AGM-65 Maverick air-to-surface missiles.|
|F/A-18 Hornet||USN||F/A-18A||74, 48||Boeing||First deployed during the U.S.’s 1986 air strikes against Libya, the steadfast F/A-18 Hornet is a twin-engine multi-role striker aircraft. Powered by twin General Electric F404-GE-402 turbofan engine providing 17,700 pounds of thrust each, the F/A-18 Hornet can fly at speeds exceeding Mach 1.7 at a 50,000-feet ceiling. The F/A-18’s maneuverability makes it the aircraft of choice for the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels demonstration squadron. Highly survivable, the Hornet has been known to be back in operational status just a day after taking direct hits from enemy surface-to-air missiles. To engage enemies, the F/A-18 Hornet is fitted with General Dynamics’ M61 Vulcan 20mm Gatling cannon, and Raytheon’s AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seeking air-to-air missiles, Raytheon’s AIM-7 Sparrow radar homing missiles, and Raytheon’s AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM).|
|F/A-18 Super Hornet||USN||F/A-18E||565||Boeing||Though derivative of the proven F/A-18 Hornet platform, the F/A18 Super Hornet is 25% larger than its precursor, and is made of 42% fewer structural parts. Since its maiden flight in 1995, Boeing has delivered over 500 units of the Super Hornet to the U.S. Navy. This multi-role fighter first entered combat service aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) in the summer of 2002. Its first sortie consisted of delivering Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) to targets in southern Iraq in support of the “Global War on Terrorism.” Backed by dual General Electric F414-GE-400 turbofan engines providing 22,000 pounds of thrust each, the F/A-18 Super Hornet can fly at speeds exceeding Mach 1.8.|
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is the largest acquisition program in the 2015 Department of Defense budget. Costs for the next five years total $146.9 billion for 522 units in addition to a total of $251.7 billion in projected future costs to procure 1,921 aircraft. The planned F-35 fleet will replace the A-10, F-16, AV-8B, and F/A-18C/D.
The F-22 modernization program, established in 2003 and currently in Increment 3.2B, will enhance electronic protection, geolocation, and intraflight data link capabilities and adapt the aircraft for AIM-9X and AIM-120D missile compatibility. $1.81 billion has been appropriated for the duration of the program.
In June 2014, off the coast of California and Alaska, F-22 fighters were used to intercept Russian Tu-95 Bear-H bombers which were likely on a training mission. F-15 fighters were used to ID the Russian aircraft. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) intercepts Russian bombers about ten times per year around Canadian and North American airspace.
In the recent (September 2014) air strikes against the Islamic State in Syria, the F-22 Raptor made its first combat debut (along with the F-15, F-16, B-1, and various armed drones) since entering active service in 2007.