Fighter aircraft have changed the strategy, operations, and tactics of warfare because they can take the fight to the enemy quickly. Fighter aircraft are fast and maneuverable military warplanes designed to destroy other enemy combat aircraft as well as military and civilian targets. Fighter aircraft are the fastest warplanes employed for combat operations. Their velocity is over twice the speed of sound or mach two (2,450 kilometers per hour; 1540 miles per hour).
They launch their attacks from land airbases and aircraft carrier warships. Fighters are generally small in size relative to other military warplanes, such as long range strategic bomber aircraft. Fighters are armed with bombs, missiles, and machine guns or cannons and they are built with high structural strength to withstand the tremendous gravitational forces they undergo while fighting enemy warplanes. Since the 1950s, many fighter aircraft were built primarily out of titanium and aluminum metals.
Fighter Aircraft History
Fighter aircraft development began during the First World War when an innovative pilot flying on an unarmed reconnaissance and observation spy-plane brought a handgun with him to fire at enemy spy-planes. By 1916, warring countries from both sides of the conflict in Europe placed machine guns onto existing spy-planes, which transform the bi-planes into warplanes to facilitate air-to-air and air-to ground combat operations. The most celebrated combat pilot flying during this time was Germany’s Manfred von Richthofen. Since he always had his planes painted red, British pilots designated him the Red Baron. He successfully gun down 80 warplanes before he was shot down in 1918.
By the time the Second World War began, fighters had evolved into specialized combat aircraft types. Many Second World War fighter warplanes were armed with either six or eight machine guns built inside the wings. During the Battle of Britain, British fighter pilots saved England from German invasion by repelling thousands of German ME109 warplanes with their Spitfire Aircraft.
When the Second World War ended, fighter aircraft were being designed with jet engine power systems and they became armed with heat seeking missiles, radar guided missiles, guide bomb units, and machine guns. US fighter pilots experienced combat operations in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan and against Soviet designed fighter aircraft.
Since the 1970s, fighter aircraft have been designed to be small, stealthy, maneuverable, and maintainable. Combat aircraft development is moving toward dual-purpose fighter-bombers, and small fighters due to the high cost of maintaining these advanced weapon systems. Because many countries can not afford to spend the extra money for two separate aircraft, fighter-bomber development is increasing worldwide. The best multirole fighter-bomber aircraft existing today is the US designed fifth generation F-35 Joint Strike fighter.
Fighter Aircraft Types
Fighter aircraft exist in several forms, which include: interceptors, air-to-air fighters, and fighter-bombers because every fighter is specifically designed for a certain mission and role. Interceptors are a type of fighter designed to be launched at a moment’s notice to defend against enemy attack.
The official definition of an interceptor is a fighter that does not engage in air-to-air combat operations, but simply takes off from an airbase, fires its missiles at the enemy warplanes, and returns to land. Interceptors were operated by the United States and Russia until about 1980. The best interceptors include: the US F-106 Delta Dart, the British Lighting, and the Soviet MiG-25 FOXBAT.
During the 1980s, the aging, less agile interceptor aircraft were replaced by dedicated air-to-air fighter aircraft. These fighters shoot missiles and fire guns because they are designed to engage enemy fighters within visual range during combat operations. This close-range combat is referred to as combat aircraft dog-fighting operations.
Dedicated air-to-air fighters include the US F-14 Tomcat, the British F3 Tornado, and the Russian MiG-29 FULCRUM. During the 1990s, dual-purpose aircraft that can drop bombs as well as dogfight were seen in increasing numbers. These are known as fighter-bombers or strike fighters. The best fighter-bombers in service include the US F/A-18 Hornet and the Russian Su-27 Flanker aircraft.
Since the Cold War, the majority of fighter aircraft are designed and built by the United States, France, and Russia as well as a European conglomeration of countries that includes Great Britain, Germany, Italy, and others. The two most widely used fighters in the world today are the US design F-16 Fighting Falcon and F/A-18 Hornet.
Both of these warplanes are flown by numerous countries with ties to the United States, including Canada, Norway, Australia, Finland, and Malaysia. These combat aircraft have fighter-bomber capability and they are smaller in size, easy to operate, very maneuverable, and moderately maintainable. Poor countries of the world procure many Russian fighter aircraft and many of these Russian warplanes are operated in North Africa, Middle East, Central America, South America, and South Asia.
Fighter Aircraft Armaments
Fighter aircraft are armed with missiles, bombs, and guns. Fighter warplanes employ either radar guided or heat seeking missiles during combat operations. Medium-range radar guided missiles, such as the Sparrow, have a range of about 30 kilometers and can use on-board radar to find their target, enabling fighters to knock down enemy planes without actually seeing them.
Short-range heat seeking missiles, such as the Sidewinder, are effective at distances from 2 to 20 kilometers. The short-range Sidewinder missile homes in on the heat generated by the engines of an enemy aircraft. Fighter aircraft are equipped with gravity guided bombs, laser guide bombs, and global positioning system (GPS) guide munitions for airstrikes on military and civilian targets. All US fighter aircraft are equipped with 20 millimeter cannons for within visual range combat operations.