Frank Whittle
Hans von Ohain
Heinkel He 176
French ramjet experiment
commercial jet aviation
in search of speed
the Cold War
the B-52 Bomber
the Soviet Blackjack
Soviet vertical takeoff efforts
Curtiss LeMay and SACs
the aircraft carrier
cold war fighters
the B2 bomber early programme
US bombers - the future
post war British air defence
French nuclear deterrence
current air capability of China
helicopters at war
'small' wars
guided bombs
cruise missiles

cold war fighters

Both sides that participated in the Cold War also produced an amazing array of jet-powered fighter aircraft. The earliest jet fighters were adaptations of World War II aircraft: the Lockheed P- 80 Shooting Star was the first jet used by the U.S. Air Force; the McDonnell FH-1 Phantom was the U.S. Navy’s first jet fighter; and the North American FJ- 1 Fury was the first fighter to see combat during the Korean War.

The Fury inspired the F-86 Sabre, the favourite of USAF pilots confronting MiG-15s in the air over Korea. American pilots discovered the disadvantages of fighter air combat conducted far from home base (something the British had demonstrated during the Battle of Britain) when most engagements with the MiGs took place in an area near the North Korean border known as MiG Alley.

In 1953 a new crop of fighters appeared: North American improved on its Sabre formula to produce the F-1OO Super Sabre. These sparred occasionally with the chief Soviet fighter of the period, the MiG-19.  The art of fighter design reached a high point in the 1960s with the building of the McDonnell Douglas F4H Phantom, one of the most versatile fighter- bombers produced by the United States since World War II, and the Dessault Mirage III, a fighter the French sold to everyone, making it a main component of fifteen of the world’s air forces.

The Vietnam era produced yet a fresher crop of fighters, now with “Coke bottle” design to enhance their speed to the supersonic range: the Republic F-lO5 Thunderchief, a fighter that was able to deliver an awesome six thousand rounds of cannon fire per minute; the Grumman A6E Intruder, a slow fighter that had the advantage of being able, because of super-sophisticated electronics, to fly even in stormy weather; and the Chance-Vought F-8 Crusader, a Navy fighter that was used extensively during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

North American F-86 Sabrejet

All used advanced electronics and, for the most part, missiles instead of cannons, although the success enjoyed by the Israeli Air Force flying Phantoms during the Six Day War of 1967 convinced many that there was still a place for fixed- barrel armament in a fighter.

 Chance-Vought RF-8G Crusader

Their main adversary in the air was the Russian-built MiG-21, a delta-wing jet that carried air-to-air missiles and was configured mainly for aerial combat and not for ground support or bombing. As a result, the MiGs were a significant factor in control of the skies over Vietnam, but the North Vietnamese never benefited from other ways in which fighter aircraft can be used in war. The MiG-21 was exported by the Soviets to more than thirty other nations who learned only later that its excellent flight characteristics were achieved at the cost of its versatility.

 McDonnell Douglas F4C Phantom

Largely because of support from Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara, the Convair F-Ill, a swing-wing (or “variable-geometry”) fighter-bomber, saw a great deal of action during the Vietnam War and continued to be an important fighter during the U.S. air attack on Libya in 1986 and again during “Operation Desert Storm”—the Gulf War—in 1991. In addition to the F-111 and the Phantom, the U.S. fighter arsenal contains the General Dynamics F-l6A Fighting Falcon, the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, and, most important, the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle. Looking at the Soviet side, we find that nearly every type  of aircraft in the U.S. fleet has a directly corresponding answer in the Soviet fleet, often an aircraft that has taken advantage of being second in the air to create specifications that make it first in performance.

Soviet MIG-15

The F-111’s counterpart is the Su-24 Fencer, which is faster and has a larger range. The Phantom is met by the MiG-27 Flogger, also a swing wing (the Phantom is not) that is identical to the light dog-fighting MiG-23. The F-16 has two Soviet counterparts: the MiG-21 and the MiG-29 Fulcrum. Not surprisingly, the USAF did not allow the Soviet supremacy in any of these models to go unchallenged, and improvements eventually put the aircraft out of the Soviets’ reach, particularly in the F-l5, the premier USAF fighter.

Convair F-III

The same technology—a combination of material science and electronics—that created the Stealth Bomber was used to create the Stealth Fighter, the F-Il7A, an airplane first delivered in secret in 1983, but which proved itself during the American invasion of Panama and during the Gulf War, when it used laser-guided missiles to knock out Iraqi targets.

McDonnell-Douglas F-15 Eagle

An aircraft developed by the British and adopted by the American Air Force, but which the Soviets were hard pressed to duplicate, is the Hawker-Siddeley Harrier, a jet fighter that allows the thrust to be directed downward so that the plane can hover or take off vertically.

Soviet MiG-29 Fulcrum

The “Jump Jet” is particularly useful in confined-area engagements, where non-combatant borders and geographical boundaries, coupled with the increased ability of army units to “disappear” in an area using camouflage, force a fighter aircraft to be in the thick of battle virtually at a moment’s notice from any position. The Harrier saw extensive and effective action during the Falklands crisis in 1982 and has become an important ground-support aircraft of the U.S. Marines.

Lockheed F-II7A Stealth Fighter

The war between the U.S.-led coalition and Iraq following the latter’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991, known as the Gulf War or “Operation Desert Storm,” pitted the air capabilities of the United States against the ground capabilities and largely Soviet-supplied air arsenal or Iraq. The objective of U.S. operations seems to have been to win the war most expeditiously through the use of air power while endangering as few American lives as possible.

The air war over Iraq was not supported by Russia, so that much of the equipment used by the Iraqis, including the MiG-21 Fishbed fighters they flew, were not in the best battle-ready condition and enjoyed virtually no ground support. As a result, the American F-15 Eagles, aided by the E-3 AWACS radar aircraft, had little trouble clearing the skies.

The main assault aircraft used in this war was the Panavia Tornado, a low-altitude fighter developed by England, Germany, and Italy that was the mainstay of the Saudi Arabian Air Force, the other major combatant. The Panavia is a variable-geometry aircraft that is designed to fight well at high speeds when contending with other fighters, and at low speeds when its wings are extended.

The Panavia was instrumental in the entrance of a new word into the military vocabulary: interdiction. An aircraft is carrying out an interdiction when by virtue of its bombing and ground support it is cutting off a military unit (of whatever size) from its main headquarters.

A feature of the Panavia that makes it an ideal interdictor is its terrain-following radar, allowing it to fly low and anticipate enemy ground fire. Interdiction became an oft-used word in the Gulf War and has become an important goal in the design of fighter aircraft.

Two classes of new weapons were used during the first Gulf War: the Lockheed F-il 7A Stealth Fighter, used sparingly but effectively in the early stages of the conflict, when Iraq had a semblance of an air defence; and the laser-guided missiles that provided pinpoint accuracy (and impressive video footage) in conjunction with the Forward-Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) system.