Category: Top Tens

The top 10 fighter aircraft of 2018 (BVR combat)

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This year’s list is out very late, due to a radically changed scene  — and some new sources of revealing information. This ranking may be the most controversial but I hope we make our reasoning clear — of course any top ten is not to be taken literally (reality does not confirm to the top 10 format) and each aircraft has a specialism of which it is king. The process we used is discussed here.

To excel in Beyond Visual Range air combat a fighter must be well-armed and equipped with capable avionics. It must be able to fly high and fast to impart the maximum range to its missiles, allowing them to hit the enemy before he is even aware of their presence. The aircraft must give its crews sufficient situational awareness not to shoot their friends down, and be easy to operate so it can deploy its weapons quickly and accurately. The black magic of the aircraft’s electronic warfare suite can also come into its own, reducing the opponent’s situational awareness. Situational awareness, weapons capability and combat persistence are probably more important than manoeuvre capability (g), although transonic and supersonic acceleration is helpful in creating opportunities to survive & win multiple engagements.

Hardware is generally less important than training and tactics — removing these human factors from the mix allows us to judge the most deadly long-range fighting machines currently in service. The exact ordering of this list is open to question, but all the types mentioned are extraordinarily potent killers. This list only includes currently active fighters (so no Su-57s etc) and only includes weapons and sensors that are actually in service today. 

(Contenders for the number 12 slot included the J-31B, FC-1,Iranian F-14 and Mirage 2000)

11. Lockheed Martin F-16E 

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OK, so we said ‘top 10’, but the F-16 deserves a mention. A great sensor suite, including a modern AESA (the APG-80) and comprehensive defensive aids systems is combined with advanced weapons and a proven platform; a small radar cross section also helps. However, the type is let down by mediocre ‘high and fast’ performance, and fewer missiles and a smaller detection range than some of its larger rivals. Older F-16s, including some USAF examples are being upgraded with the APG-83 AESA radar.  Israeli F-16s also deserve an honourable mention for their advanced jamming and avionics systems, but are largely tasked with ground attack. The next advanced variant of the Viper, the F-16V/Block 70,  has been ordered by Slovakia and Bahrain. 

Armament for A2A mission: 4 x AIM-120C-7 (Ds in some cases), 2 x AIM-9X (1 x 20-mm cannon).

10. Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet 

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The Super Hornet is akin to a luxury sports car without a big enough engine: it has all the ‘bells and whistles’ (a very powerful advanced radar, reduced radar cross section, an excellent cockpit, data-linking capability and good weapons) but lacks the grunt to make the most of its superb systems at higher speed and altitudes. The weapons carriage is also among the draggiest configuration.

Though in an actual BVR engagement pilot training levels and the aircraft’s place in a larger system are decisive, we are looking at the aircraft as a weapon system in a like-for-like way — so many of the US Navy’s Super Hornet’s advantages are removed. A planned Block III upgrade will see the addition of conformal fuel tanks to increase reach, further reduced radar conspicuity and the addition of a modern wide display cockpit.

Read an exclusive interview with a Super Hornet pilot here.

This list, which for the sake of brevity (largely) treats aircraft as isolated weapon systems, does not favour the Super Hornet: in reality, with support from E-2Ds and advanced other assets, US Navy Super Hornets would be extremely capable in the BVR arena against most adversaries.

Armament for A2A mission: Super Hornet (high drag ‘Christmas tree’) 12 x AIM-120, realistic = 6 x AIM-120C-7/D  + 2/4 AIM-9X ) (1 x 20-mm cannon)

9. Sukhoi Su-35

The Su-35 is considerably more capable than earlier ‘Flanker’s and would pose a significant challenge to any ‘eurocanard’. Su-35S were deployed in Syria in 2016 to provide air cover for Russian forces engaged in anti-rebel/ISIL attacks. The Su-35 is even more powerful than the Su-30M series and boasts improved avionics and man-machine interface. More on the Su-35 can be found here. Many of the teething problems encountered in Syria have now rectified.  One ace the Su-35 has in its sleeve is the inclusion of the R-27T medium range infra-red guided missile (seen on aircraft deployed to Syria) – which is potentially effective against low radar cross section aircraft and has no American equivalent. One Russian analyst we spoke to questioned the effectiveness of the R-77 noting Russia’s lack of investment in modernising the weapon and the glacial pace of development of ultra-long range weapons for the Su-35.

The Su-35 represents the Flanker series for this list but high-end T-10 series aircraft include the Su-30, J-11B and J-16. (See Idiot’s guide to Flankers here.)

A2A armament: 6 x R-77 or R-27T, 4 x R-73 (1 x 30-mm cannon)

Location of target 

In terms of radars, the Su-35S’s Irbis-E PESA radar provides extremely high power levels allowing target detection beyond 300km (although without weapons which can engage at this range), as well as claimed advances in detecting low-observable threats such as stealth fighters at significantly beyond visual range. However, the downside to this is that the Irbis-E has to operate at extremely high power levels to achieve this performance and so is easily detectable and track-able at ranges beyond those at which it can track. All radars except AESAs with very low probabilities of intercept such as the F-22’s APG-77 suffer from this paradox but it is worse for the Su-35 because of the latter’s very large RCS and IR signature which means it must rely on out-ranging its opponents at BVR rather than trying to sneak up on them whilst relying on passive tracking.

Engage and defeat the target

Su-35 benefits from superb Russian missile design expertise. The multiple seeker-head mix which Russian fighters would fire in missile salvos in combat makes defending against them a very complicated task. At long range, the Su-35 can fire a mix of semi-active radar homing, anti-radiation (home on jam) and IR homing missiles, whilst at short range the ‘Archer’ series remains as deadly as ever. Typhoon has the excellent ASRAAM and IRIS-T short range IR missiles which can equal or surpass their Russian counterparts, but at long range the AMRAAM is showing its age and against Digital Radio Frequency Memory (DRFM) jamming technology which the Su-35S employs, its Pk drops significantly to the point that multiple missiles would likely be required to kill each target.

BVR engagements are all about situational awareness, positioning/energy advantage, and persistence in terms of fuel and missiles. In all but the latter category the Su-35 is hopelessly outclassed by the F-22 (as are all other operational fighter aircraft). Even in terms of missiles, the Su-35 can carry up to twelve to the F-22’s eight but combat practice, especially against stealthy targets, involves firing salvos of six missiles with mixed seekers so the Su-35 only really has two credible shots

Disengage at will

Repeat as necessary

Abundant fuel reserves and a large weapon load.

8. Mikoyan MiG-31BSM ‘Foxhound’

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As a defender against bombers the MiG-31 may well be the most potent interceptor in the world. In our article that explained the judging criteria for this top 10, analyst Jim Smith noted ” (The) Air Defence of Russia drives you towards the MiG-31. You have to have a big, fast, aircraft because you can’t avoid the possibility of having to cover a fair distance at high speed to meet the threat. Being big means a big sensor and long-range weapons are available, and both are likely to be needed. You may be less concerned about signature and platform manoeuvrability because your ideal approach will be to stand back and hit bombers rather than engage fighters.”

Interview with a MiG-25 pilot here.

The MiG-31 is designed for maximum BVR performance. Against bombers and cruise missiles it is superbly capable (and would be ranked higher on this list), however as a defensive interceptor it is vulnerable to more agile and stealthier fighter opponents. The fastest modern fighter in the world, with a top speed of Mach 2.83+, the MiG-31 offers some unique capabilities. Until the advent of Meteor-armed Gripens and Typhoons, no operational aircraft had a longer air-to-air weapon than the type’s huge R-33, which can engage targets well over 100 miles away (it may well out-range the AIM-120D). The recent K-74M, which is believed to be in limited operational service (though there is no open source material to support this claim) is even more potent and may even have some advantages over Meteor.

Designed to hunt in packs of four or more aircraft the type can sweep vast swathes of airspace, sharing vital targeting information by data-link with other aircraft. The enormous PESA radar was the first ever fitted to a fighter. The type is marred by a mountainous radar cross section and abysmal agility at lower speeds. More on the MiG-31 here and here. 

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7. Dassault Rafale C

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The Rafale F3R upgrade standard — introducing Meteor capability— was qualified in late 2018 , but is not due to become operational until early 2019.  F3R involves major software upgrades, and the full integration of Thales TALIOS long-range airborne targeting pod. Though primarily an air-to-ground sensor the pod will improve target detection and identification.

Against the Meteor-armed Gripen and Typhoon, the French is aircraft is at a (probably brief) disadvantage. This is a reversal of the traditional position where Rafale has leapt ahead of Typhoon in weapon and systems integration (with some exceptions, like a helmet cueing system).  Other than real stealth, this is in the only real disadvantage suffered by the type, which has a good performance, an excellent defensive aids suite and a high level of sensor fusion. Rafale has a more advanced radar than the other European and Russian fighters and a weapon (the MICA) that the Russians and Chinese do not known as well as the elderly and universal AMRAAM, and thus may be less able to counter. When Rafale receives Meteor it is likely to leap up to a top three position.

6. Chengdu J-20

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2018 marks the J-20’s debut in this list. It also makes China the second nation in the world to put an indigenous stealth fighter into operational service.

With a hypothetical really long-range anti-air weapon, this relatively stealthy platform could force essential support assets such as tankers and AEW platforms to stand back, reducing situational awareness and combat persistence for opposition aircraft. Perhaps the J-20 should be thought of as a stealthy MiG-31, aimed at large area airspace denial rather than a air superiority fighter per se, though the J-20 is generally described as an F-22 Raptor-class aircraft. In many ways this is true, but the J-20 is particularly interesting because of its rather different configuration. The J-20 has a canard-delta rather than the (essentially) tailed-delta of both the Raptor and the Su-57 (which has yet to enter service). Additionally, unlike Typhoon, the canard is not closely coupled to the wing. The main benefit to be gained from this arrangement is the carriage of significantly more fuel, coupled with the scope for use of a longer weapons bay. The additional fuel could confer either additional range, or long combat persistence, and this suggests that, if armed with a long-range AAM a role as an anti-AWACS or anti-tanker system. The large weapons bay might also provide sufficient volume for a wide range of weapons. What of the compromises? I would suggest less energy manoeuvrability, as the configuration is likely to have somewhat higher transonic drag. In addition, signature (other than head-on) looks likely to be a bit greater. Head on signature could be comparable to competing systems if appropriate engine installation and airframe treatments are used. The canard, is likely, to be at low deflection for supersonic flight, especially if Su-35-like thrust vectoring is available to trim the aircraft. It is not clear from open source literature if this is the case, but it is likely the PLA are looking into it. It is only the type’s immaturity that keeps it from a higher placing, and it is likely to move up this list next year. 

Stealth, supercruise and the modern weapons mean the J-20 is likely to mature into an extremely capable, and unique, aircraft. Achieving this depends on the degree to which China can overcome its historical problems with engine developments.

Location of target 

The J-20 carries a modern AESA in a nose large enough to accommodate a set of 2000-2200 transmit/receive modules. Detection abilities are likely to be excellent.

Engage and defeat the target

Assessing the J-20s capability in this sense is hard. Giving the J-20 a very long range weapon would be a logical step and it is believed that this weapon is currently in testing. In 2016 China downed a target drone with a massive air-to-air missile. This could be a  very long range air to air missile (VLRAAM) with ranges exceeding 300 km. Far greater than any Western weapon. The PL-15 which is said to be operational is a Meteor equivalent, but the analyst we spoke to was sceptical about its current status. 

Disengage at will

Supercruise and a degree of stealth (though probably less than the F-22 from most aspects) will give the J-20 options, though it is likely to lack the energy manoeuvrability  of the F-22.

Repeat as necessary

Massive fuel reserves (if combined with an efficient engine) and a large weapons bay are likely to make the J-20 one of the best aircraft in this regard.

Armament: 6-8 x new generation PL-12C/PL-15s or new generation BVR missile  + 2 x PL-10

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5.  McDonnell Douglas F-15C (V) 3/Boeing F-15SG/F-15SE Eagle 

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US F-15Cs were among the first fighters in the world to receive the AIM-120D AMRAAM, the best Western air-to-air missile after the Meteor.  With an estimated 100  mile range, new hardware and software systems for improved navigation, an improved HOBS (High-Angle Off-Boresight) capability, the D model offers a significant advantage. Though far from fleet wide, USAF has a number of F-15Cs fitted with both the  APG-63(V)3 radar and the AIM-120D, these Golden Eagles boast a superior radar to any non-US types. With a massive effective radar, good range, combat persistence and a high level of maturity, the Eagle remains extremely potent. 

Though the famously one-sided score sheet of the F-15 should be taken with a pinch of salt (Israeli air-to-air claims are often questionable to say the least), the F-15 has proved itself a tough, kickass fighter that can be depended on. It lacks the agility (certainly at lower speeds) of its Russian counterparts, but in its most advanced variants has an enormously capable radar in the APG-63(V)3. The F-15 remains the fastest Western fighter to have ever entered service, and is currently the fastest non-Russian frontline aircraft of any kind in the world (though an F-15 pilot we spoke to here said he’d never got a clean eagle over Mach 2.3). The type is cursed by a giant radar cross section, a massive infra-red signature and an inferior high altitude performance to a newer generation of fighters.

Though Saudi F-15SAs are extremely advanced they are not considered mature and rumours hint at problems with the aircraft. The latest F-15s will benefit from the greatest amount of computing power of any aircraft. The F-15X is a suggested variant with the latest technology and ‘missile truck’ mass AMRAAM load-outs.

A2A armament: 6 x AIM-120C-7 or AIM-120D  2 x AIM-9X

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The F-15X is not yet real. It is could address USAF’s need for a fighter with many more missiles than carried by the F-22 and F-35.

4. Saab Gripen 

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Some caution could be expressed about the Meteor, as it is far from being a combat proven weapon. But the signs are encouraging, with the order-book stacking up and a large amount of time, money and effort put into the weapon’s development. In our original list from five years ago, the Gripen did not even make the top ten. Its dramatic jump to the number two position in 2016’s list here was due to one reason: the entry into operational service  of the MBDA Meteor missile. The Gripen was the first fighter in the world to carry the long-delayed Meteor. The Meteor probably outranges every Western weapon, and thanks to its ramjet propulsion (an innovation for air-to-air missiles) it has a great deal of energy, even at the outer extremes of its flight profile, allowing it to chase manoeuvring targets at extreme ranges. Many air forces have trained for years in tactics to counter AMRAAM, but few know much about how to respond to the vast No Escape Zone of Meteor. This combined with a two-way datalink (allowing assets other than the firer to communicate with the missile), the aircraft’s low radar signature, and the Gripen’s pilot’s superb situational awareness makes the small Swedish fighter a particularly nasty threat to potential enemies. The Gripen is not the fastest nor longest-legged fighter, nor is its radar particularly powerful. It would have to be used carefully, taking advantage of its advanced connectivity and superior Electronic Warfare systems to make the most of its formidable armament.

Let’s suppose you have a small-ish nation, where the Government does not have global dominance in its agenda. For such a nation, the key aim is deterrence, ensuring that any country wishing to invade or dominate you cannot easily do so. For such a nation, Gripen/Meteor might be the ultimate air defender, especially if you have a well-integrated air defence system and dispersed bases. Never being far from the border or a base, fuel volume and even weapons load don’t matter so much, because you’ll scoot back to your cave and re-arm/refuel. Having a big stick, however, is great, because you can defeat threats while keeping out of their missile range.

4 x MBDA Meteor + 2 x IRIS-T (1 x 27-mm cannon)

3. Lockheed Martin F-35A/B Lightning II 

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The F-35 is perhaps the hardest aircraft to place on this list as its stealth and situational awareness should give it a very high ranking (it made position two last year) but reports continue to circulate regarding problems with the aircraft’s AMRAAM integration. It is (largely) this lack of a mature AMRAAM capability that stop it taking the number two slot that one might expect given of such an sophisticated system. Its appalling reliability and extremely high-maintenance demands (many shared with the F-22) also count against it. In 2017 the F-35 had a mission capable rate of 54.67%, which is terrible. To put this into perspective the B-1B which is very big, very complicated, old, has swing wings and four engines is only 2 or 3% worse! It appears that with a ‘fifth generation’ aircraft you get a mission capable rate of around 50% compared to 70% for a thirty year-old fourth generation aircraft (it is likely that the Eurocanards offer even better rates if assessed in the same way). How ever good a fighter is in theory, it has to be ready to fight to be able to fight.

In Location of target the F-35 scores very highly, being arguably the best fighter in terms of sensors and data connectivity. Stealth and unparalleled situational awareness make a potent beyond visual fighter of the F-35A, despite its pedestrian kinematic performance. The F-35A has gained a formidable reputation in large-scale war-games; against conventional opponents the F-35 raking up a reported 17-1 simulated aerial victories. The F-35, if it is to stay in a stealthy configuration, has fewer missiles than its rivals. It also lacks the agility and high altitude performance of the F-22, Rafale or Typhoon. A word of caution about the high ranking we have given the F-35: procurement moves by the US (both F-22s and 6th Gen’ plans), Japan (with the F-3) and Turkey with the TF-X show that those who can afford an alternative don’t consider the F-35 a viable air superiority platform. This flies in the face of public announcements by Lockheed Martin, USAF and F-35 pilots regarding the aircraft’s effectiveness in the role, but it is hard to read the facts in any other way. 

 

4 x AIM-120C-5 + 2 AIM-9X (1 x 25-mm cannon)

2. Eurofighter Typhoon FGR.4

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In December 2018, the RAF launched Meteor-armed Typhoons on a Quick Reaction Alert mission — signalling it’s probable entry into service, and catapulting it to the number two position. Typhoon is now the best armed fighter in the world for beyond visual range combat, bar none. The Typhoon is very fast, high flying and energetic, imbuing its AMRAAMs and Meteor with a longer reach than those launched by lower performance aircraft. RAF Tranche 1 Typhoons are not Meteor compatible but will instead be fitted with AIM-120D in a deal that was signed in July 2018.

Its greatest weakness remains its lack of an AESA radar and its non-stealthiness. Against a stealthy opponent, for example the J-20 (when fully mature), the Typhoon will be at a large disadvantage and without the support of  an off-board sensors (from friendly F-35s for example) will struggle to get first-look and first-kill. The Typhoon is one only two aircraft on this list (the other is Gripen) with a mechanically scanned radar, a 20th century technology which leaves the sensor “… on the verge of complete obsolescence, with an inherently greater vulnerability to jamming and an inability to fully exploit the performance and capabilities of new weapons” according to some in the RAF Typhoon community. However, the radar is a decent size, with good detection range and is fully mature. Future Typhoons will carry the Captor E ‘Radar Plus One’, a new pivoted wide-view AESA, with the chance of an all new Radar Plus Two further in the future.

Interview with a Typhoon pilot here and here

A2A armament: Up to six Meteor/AMRAAM AIM-120C5 + 2 or 4 AIM-132 ASRAAM/IRIS-T

 

1. Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor 

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Undisputed king of beyond-visual range air combat remains the F-22 Raptor. Its superbly stealthy design means it is likely to remain undetected to enemy fighters, calmly despatching its hapless opponents. The only potential rivals, the Russian Su-57 and Chinese J-20, remain immature.

The type’s excellent, but ageing, AESA radar is world class, and its ‘low-probability of interception’ operation enables to see without being seen. When high-altitude limitations are not in place (due to safety concerns) the type fights from a higher perch than F-15s and F-16s, and is more frequently supersonic. High and fast missile shots impart the AMRAAMs with greater energy, and so range, and allow the F-22 to stay out of harm’s way. The recent addition of the AIM-120D to the Raptor’s arsenal give it a weapon of improved range and sophistication. Since 2017, the F-22 has carried the AIM-9X , which has a marginal BVR performance useful against stealthy opponents. 

The F-22 is now proven in combat; though it has not taken part in air-to-air combat, it has performed in the CAS, ISR and Combat Air Patrol missions over Syria, and more recently in Afghanistan.

The F-22 is expensive to operate and maintain, suffers from a poor radius of action for its size and has suffered a high attrition rate for a modern fighter. Issues with parts and software obsolescence have also dogged the aircraft, with recent efforts being made to provide more easily upgradable computer systems. The F-22’s ‘mission capable‘ rate is poor and getting worse, it plunged from a FY2014 high of 72.7% to an alarming 60% in 2016 to a lamentable 49.01% in 2017! This compares unfavourably with the 71.24% for the geriatric F-15C fleet in FY2017 (a figure that has stayed largely unchanging for five years). Its ability to share information with other aircraft is not first class: the F-22 does not have the ability to transmit on the standard Link-16 network—though it can receive data. The Talon HATE (it is unknown what the acronym stands for, assuming it is one) pod now being tested will allow the F-15 to connect with the Raptor’s Intra-Flight Data Link (previously a Raptor-to-Raptor only system). The IFDL has a low-probability of intercept and low-probability of detection capability that offers a high resistance to jamming and eavesdropping. 

Location of target 

The F-22 is likely to detect anything now flying before it detects the F-22, with the possible exception of the F-35.

Engage and defeat the target

High energy, excellent situational awareness and the best US-made made air-to-air missile give the F-22 a high probability of winning a BVR engagement against anything else.

Disengage at will

This is to allow you to either re-position for another engagement, or to withdraw. In this category the Raptor scores highly. Its combination of high energy manoeuvrability, all aspect stealth, AESA radar and its ability to receive information from other aircraft allow it massive liberty in its options. 

Repeat as necessary

This requires the ability to carry enough weapons have good combat persistence and, often ignored, have sufficient availability and numbers to deliver a campaign rather than just an engagement. In this category the F-22 has failings, which include a low combat readiness and a small fleet. Six AIM-120s limits the extent to which the F-22 can exploit its relative invisibility, and compromises from its stealthy design mean it does not have the range one would expect of such a large modern platform.

Armament: 6 x AIM-120C-5 or AIM-120D  + 2 x AIM-9X or AIM-9M 

 

Interview with USAF spy pilot here

Top Combat Aircraft of 2030The Ultimate World War I FightersSaab Draken: Swedish Stealth fighter?, Flying and fighting in the MiG-27: Interview with a MiG pilotProject Tempest: Musings on Britain’s new superfighter project, Top 10 carrier fighters 2018, Ten most important fighter aircraft guns

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The Top 34 pilot moustaches

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Along with a sense of dash, a disrespect for authority and a dog, the male pilot should have a moustache. When we asked our readers for their suggestions for the top 10 pilot moustaches, we were stunned by the huge response.  With this in mind, we have grown the list from 10 to a great hairy 34! 

(note to US readers: we are talking about mustaches)

34. Dick Dastardly “Curses, foiled again!”

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Dastardly’s appearance is based on Sir Percival Ware-Armitage from ‘The magnificent men in their flying machines’ (played by Terry-Thomas). Dick is penalised for not being real.

33. Chesley Sullenberger ‘Hudson-ducker proxy’

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Hero and a gentleman he may be, but the ‘Angry Neighbour’ is not a stylish moustache.

32. Chief Instructor CDR Mike ‘Viper’ Metcalf

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Metcalf mastered the ‘your mum’s new boyfriend‘ look but as he did not exist outside the homoerotic naval recruitment film ‘Top Gun’ he has not received a high ranking.

31. Col. Chris Hadfield ‘Cosmic busker’

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“You know science can actually be fun…kids, where are you going?”

Orbiting Canadian busker Hadfield sports the ‘Scientist Uncle’ as also sported by your scientist uncle. Though being a spaceman is very impressive, this upperlip hair is far too sensible for this contest.

30. General Guishi Nagoaka ‘Hirsutie cutie pie’

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The second largest moustache in the world at the time, but alas, cheeky Nagoaka was not a pilot — though he did pioneer some aspects of balloon warfare. According to his wife, the moustache was unbearably tickly on her thighs.

29. C.J. ‘Heater’ Heatley ‘Strawberry Top Gun’

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F-14 pilot, Top Gun instructor and photographer Heatley took pictures that inspired the Top Gun film. All very well, but his thespian moustache seems too conventional to earn many points despite its excellent condition and strawberry blond hue.

28. Adolf Galland ‘Gallanded Gentry’

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104 aerial victories for the Luftwaffe and a tidy moustache.

27. Wing Commander Robert Stanford Tuck ‘Tuck shop’

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A classic fighter pilot look from Tuck here. After an extremely eventful World War II he made friends with Adolf Galland in later life and had a mushroom farm.

26. Hans Von Dortenmann ‘Focke!’

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Twat

This twat shot down 38 aircraft that were fighting the Nazis. He killed a relation (Tempest pilot F/Sgt Coles of 274 Sqn ) of the author —  which is probably going to lose him some points in this moustache contest.

25. Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Cotesworth Slessor ‘Headmaster wants to see you’

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If F-35 pilot Scott Williams hadn’t suggested Slessor’s inclusion on this list, it’s doubtful he would have made it (based on the image above anyway). Looking like the man who has just interrupted you sleeping with his wife, his stubbly shadow is below par.

24. René Fonck ‘Fonck you I won’t do what you tell me’

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In World War I, two American pilots bet Fonck a bottle of champagne that one of them would shoot down an enemy plane before he did. Fonck lost the bet, but rather than pay it off, he convinced the Americans to change the terms of the bet so that whoever shot down the most Germans that day would win.  Fonck went on to shoot down six enemy aircraft before the sun set. He become the top Allied Ace, with around 100 kills despite his unassuming moustache.

23. Glenn Curtiss ‘Curtiss may field first amphibious aircraft’

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Peaky Blinders-style bully boy Glenn Curtiss did everything, if you don’t know him already, have a look on Wiki. Even with his busy life he kept time to maintain a really tough tash.

22. Bob Hoover ‘Not the KFC guy’

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He could pour a cup of tea while performing a 1G barrel roll, and was one of the best pilots ever. Fairplay and a good ‘tash.

21. Charlie BrownPeanuts’

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Not to be confused with Charlie Brown from the Stigler incident , this Brown is a warbird pilot and owner of a pitch perfect handlebar.

20. Paul ‘Pablo’ Mason ‘The Mighty Fins’

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Outspoken Gulf War veteran Pablo Mason was a Tornado pilot. As well as sporting a large moustache à la hongroise – a Saxon warlord kind of a thing – he was fired from being an airline pilot for being too cool*. High scorer here.

*He let a passenger on a charter flight onto the flightdeck to allay the passenger’s fear of flying, something which was banned following 9 11. He had previously stripped to his underwear in a protest at overly fussy airport security.

19. Roscoe Turner ‘Roscoe Turner Overdrive’

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Somewhere between Dali and Vic Reeves, the surreal majesty of Turner’s Small Handlebar/Dali ‘tash look deserves celebration. Air-racing, lion-owning, DFC-winning Turner was a pretty amazing guy all round.

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18. Howard Hughes ‘Hunky Hughes’

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As well as collecting his own pee in jars and wearing Kleenex boxes for slippers, Hughes had an excellent understated moustache. Good to think of Hughes when considering if people like Bruce Wayne really exist.

17. Mike Napier ‘Hairy Tonka’

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Mike Napier’s solid ‘Nigel Mansell’ is rocksteady at low-altitude, perfect for flying a Tornado GR.1

16. Jimmy ‘Wacko’ Edwards

Jimmy_EdwardsDakota pilot and entertainment star, Edwards’ poetic lip border is a joy.

15. Captain O P Jones ‘Jimmy Hillfiger’

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Charismatic spiritual father to all British airline pilots, Jones was feared and revered. When the HP.42 he was flying was badly hit by lightning, jamming the cockpit door shut and damaging the rear of the aircraft, he reassured passengers by sliding a note through  a crack in the door. Despite this he has brought a piratical beard to a moustache contest and cannot be scored highly.

14. Adolphe Pegoud

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Insouciant as fuck, Pegoud catches the carefree elegance of French heroes with his rakish handlebar. He was the first fighter ace in the world, the first person to parachute from an aeroplane and the second (not the first as believed at the time) pilot to perform a loop. He was shot down and killed by a former pupil in 1915 at the tender age of 26.

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13. Group Captain Mandrake

Peter Sellers in Stanley Kubrick's DR. STRANGELOVE (1964). Credi

Peter Sellers in Stanley Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE (1964). Credit: Sony Pictures.

Failing to avert an apocalypse has never been done as stylishly as Peter Sellers’ Mandrake did it in the 1964 Dr Strangelove. I’m not sure this moustache was real, I know that Mandrake himself was not – so low points here.

(For reasons that remain unclear, ‘Mandrake’ is also the nickname of the editor of a popular aircraft magazine.)

12. Wiley Post ‘Post Modern’

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Pionnering the pressure suit, discovering the jet stream and decorated with a rakish little moustache, Post had it going on.

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11. Muhammad Mahmood Alam

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“I may look like a supply teacher but I’m very good at what I do.”

Rumoured to have destroyed six IAF Hunters in one sortie — and with nine kills to his name, Alam was a hero to the Pakistan Air Force. The status of this F-86 pilot should not delude us into over-estimating his, at best, functional moustache.

12. Count Francesco Baracca ‘Ferrario’ 

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Do not mess with Baracca. The Red Baron was not the only aristoric ace of World War I, Count Baracca had 34 confirmed kills and a no nonsense cold-blooded moustache.  He painted his family crest on the side of his aircraft, a black prancing horse, which inspired the Ferrari’s iconic logo. He flew the Nieuport 17 and then, from March 1917, the SPAD VII.

11. Hugh Trenchard, 1st Viscount Trenchard ‘Trenchard’s Furry Friend’

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You can almost imagine Trenchard’s 1000-yard stare looking back at you as you catch him scrumping apples from your garden. History will judge a man who was an early advocate of strategic bombing and one of the architects of the British policy on imperial policing through air control as a man with a workmanlike facial caterpillar.

10. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh C T Dowding ‘Dowdy-Dudey’

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Dowdy Dowding was a spiritualist, a single parent, theosophist, anti-vivisectionist and a vegetarian — but his headmaster tash was not sexy. He was, however, very important in the Battle of Britain.

9. Gervais Raoul Lufbery — ‘Plucky Gervais’

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Another insouciant individual who looks like he could only smoked to give himself a break from kissing and reading philosophy, Lufbery was a French-born half-American who volunteered to fight before the US entered the war. Unlike many of the rather posh rich Americans who fought as early volunteers, he was from a humble background having worked in a chocolate factory before the war. I almost forgot to mention his moustache-  which is a micro-‘Lampshade’, and has a certain something.

8. Squadron Leader A H Rook 742814Leading a fighter squadron in Russia in 1941 demands a particularly brave moustache, so the RAF sent Rook. Good work.

7. Squadron Commander the Lord Flashheart

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Lothario, brawler and the mad bastard hero of the RFC, Lord Flashheart had an excellent handlebar moustache but loses points for being imaginary.

6. Wing Commander Roger Morewood

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Perfect

Morewood — one of the last of the Few (he died in 2014) and rocker of a perfect RAF handlebar. The platonic ideal of the dashing fighter pilot, Morewood is a heavy hitter in pilot moustache world as well as having a name any male porn actor would die for.

5. Air Cmde Suren Tyagi

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Come to ‘Fishbed’ eyes.

The Indian Air Force is an organisation that prioritises excellent moustaches over everything else (certainly over sensible procurement programmes). Thanks to this policy, Tyagi has created this luscious ‘Imperial’ style moustache, the perfect accoutrements for sitting in a MiG-21 or blasting a quail with a blunderbuss.

4. Flying Officer ‘Osti’ Ostaszewski-Ostoja

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In the September 1939 campaign, Osti fought in the Polish “Dęblin Group”, a desperate last-ditch defence force organised by instructors of the Fighter Pilot School in Ułęż. He later fought as a Spitfire pilot in the RAF. Excellent jawline and full moustache.

3. Flight Lieutenant (Flt Lt) Karan Kohli ‘Dali Fulcrum’

Moustaches are an integral part of tradition and folklore in several parts of India, imbuing the grower with respect, honour and above all, a look that speaks of masculinity. Kohli can perform the famous Cobra manourvre in his MiG-29 using his moustache alone, which is pretty impressive. This is also an excellent moustache – so points all round.

2. Robin Olds ‘Olds pilot and bolds pilot’

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Tom Hardy? Nope, Robin Olds.

You don’t get more USAF than Robin Olds, having fought with aplomb in both the P-38 and P-51 in World War II — and later the F-4 in Vietnam. His extravagantly waxed non-regulation) handlebar moustache was an act of open defiance to authority and started a fashion that swept across the Air Force.  “It became the middle finger I couldn’t raise in the PR photographs. The mustache became my silent last word in the verbal battles…with higher headquarters on rules, targets, and fighting the war.”

When he was finally given a direct order to shave he did, which inadvertently inspired the Air Force tradition of “Mustache March“, in which airmen worldwide show solidarity by a symbolic hairy protest month against Air Force facial hair regulations. The moustache itself was a masterpiece of style, authority and dash.

  1. Orville Wright ‘Wright said Fred’

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The first aeroplane pilot in the world had an excellent moustache, Orville’s magnificent face candy matching his contribution to world history. Years later it would inspire bland women on Tinder to don fake moustaches to demonstrate their lack of personalities.

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Top 10 carrier fighters 2018

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Today there are significantly fewer than 1000 carrier fighters in service around the world. Since our 2015 ranking of the world’s carrier fighters there have been some big changes. India’s Sea Harrier force was retired in 2016, and in the following year Brazil decommissioned its sole aircraft carrier the São Paulo, signalling the end of the carrier service of the iconic A-4 ‘Scooter’, a type that first flew in 1954! While France and the US are in the early stages of future carrier fighters, in the nearer term the US F-35C and India’s Tejas Navy should be the next carrier fighters to see full operational service. Meanwhile, Sweden’s Gripen Maritime has yet to receive an order. Here are the ten most potent (and only) carrier fighters in the world. 

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10. HAL Tejas Navy 

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It’s a bit of cheat letting the HAL Tejas Navy in as it doesn’t appear to be that close to operational deployment, but with the loss of the Brazilian Skyhawks and Indian Sea Harriers we needed it to make it up to a list of 10! This maritime variant of a largely indigenous Indian aircraft has proved controversial and overweight, and has been criticised by observers around the world for its modest performance and troubled development. It will, however, be a major step forward for India’s defence sector and will boast a comprehensive avionics and sensor suite. Carrier compatibility trials are underway and it has already proven its ability to perform arrested landings and ski-jump take-offs. Other than the yet-to-be ordered Sea Gripen, the Tejas Navy is the only lightweight carrier fighter currently in development.

9. Lockheed Martin F-35C Lightning II

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The slow ship in the F-35 family is the F-35C naval variant, F-35C is in service – but has yet to deployed operationally on a carrier. When it does it should prove more capable than the F-35B in several areas, enjoying a greater range (with a quoted combat radius on internal fuel of 670 nautical miles compared to the B’s 505) fuel load (8901 kg versus the B’s 6045 kg), wing area (57.6 m² versus 42.7 m²), and maximum take-off weight (31800 kg versus 27,200 kg). It will be no rocketship however, having the worst thrust-to-weight ratios of its generation: 0.75 at full fuel and 0.91 at 50% fuel (compare this with the Rafale M’s 0.988 with 100% fuel and four air-to-air missiles). As a carrier fighter, F-35s should be unsurpassed in situational awareness and stealth, though they will be dogged by the major pain of fifth-generation aircraft: extremely poor availability rates. Once fully operational the F-35C is likely to have a far higher ranking on this list.

8. Boeing AV-8B+ Harrier II/EAV-8B Matador

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Since 2015, Marine Harriers have been exceptionally busy: bombing ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria, supporting Special Operations forces and attacking Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, and fighting over Libya as part of Operation Odyssey Lightning. A mature platform with AMRAAM capability and a wide range of air-to-ground stores, the modern Harrier is a well-equipped fighter-bomber that has proved itself in the Close Air Support role and the recce/attack/CAP roles. Once slated for imminent retirement, an assessment of the woeful state of the legacy Hornet fleet has given the type a reprieve, with the USMC wishing to hold on to it for as long as possible. The USMC AV-8Bs will receive revamped defensive measures, enhanced data-link capabilities and targeting sensors. It is reported that the Harrier II’s historically poor safety recorded has been dramatically improved in recent years. The Harrier II is by far the slowest aircraft on this list (it’s subsonic), has a large radar cross section and an engine that requires careful maintenance.

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7. Sukhoi Su-33

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The Sukhoi Su-33 was intended to serve on Soviet aircraft carriers, however by the time it entered service the nation it had been developed to protect had disappeared. Only a small number were produced and were considered rather inflexible (with limited weapons options). Now their avionics suite is obsolete and they face the indignity (at least in Sukhoi’s eyes) of being replaced with the smaller MiG-29K. The Su-33’s combat debut was 2016, in support of President’s Assad’s forces in the ongoing Syrian Civil War. Russian naval Su-33s mounted attacks using dumb unguided bombs. On 5 December 2016, a Su-33 crashed into the Mediterranean Sea after failed 2nd landing attempt due to a problem with the ship’s arrestor cable. The pilot successfully ejected and was picked up by a Russian search and rescue helicopter. The Su-33 has received modest upgrades, including a new bomb aiming computer. Russia’s sole carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, is currently out of service following a crane crashing onto the deck in November 2018 causing significant damage. There are very few Su-33s, around thirty remain operational.

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6. Mikoyan MiG-29K 

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When Russia selected the Su-33 for its carriers many thought it had gone for the wrong type, as the smaller MiG-29 offered more versatility. A complicated saga ensued, and was made more complicated by the fall and then rise of the Russian economy, MiG’s precarious position and the Indian Navy’s order for the type. The MiG-29K is a world away from the original ‘Fulcrum’ in terms of range, pilot interface and sophistication, and is one of the nastiest naval fighters to tangle with in the within-visual range merge. It is no slouch in the BVR regime either, with an advanced radar and the widely feared R-77 ‘AMRAAMSKI’. The type briefly served in Syria dropping dumb bomb. Two have been lost at sea.

India received the last of its 45 MiG-29Ks in 2017. Like the Su-33, the aircraft is that miraculous and very unusual thing: a carrier aircraft developed from a land-based type. Historically, such aircraft typically proved terrible, but it was hoped that the type’s high thrust-to-weight ratio and tough airframe would allow it to buck the trend. However, the Indian Navy has recently noticed deck landings are taking their toll on the Fulcrum and are demanding it be further ‘ruggedised’. This has dropped the MiG-29K’s ranking in our list.

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5. Lockheed Martin F-35B

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Since 2015 the STOVL F-35B has become fully operational. In September 2018, a USMC F-35B executed a strike mission in Afghanistan, marking the first combat use of the F-35 in US service (following Israel’s use of F-35As in early 2018). This ‘catapults’ the F-35B from a number 10 position in 2015 to a respectable fifth in our list. Only immaturity and continued technical problems preclude its reaching a higher spot. The type is currently approaching operational service with the UK.

4. McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C/D Hornet

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It was thought that the plucky ‘Bug’ was now in the twilight of its career, but it will fight on with the Marines for some time. When it arrived on the scene in 1983 it was extremely advanced and trail-blazed many of the features that have since become de rigueur for fighters, especially in the field of cockpit design and multimode radar. It remains the fighter to beat at low altitude and is still held in awe as a dogfighter (according to pilots it has the edge on its larger brother in a ‘knife fight’). It was always short on range and struggled at the top right-hand corner of the performance envelope. Now gone from US Navy carriers it remains on the decks with the Marine Corps who intend to squeeze every last hour from their airframes, flying them until 2030. From 2020, 88 USMC Bugs will be receiving APG-79(V)4 AESA radars.

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3. Shenyang J-15

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Far more mature they were in 2015, the Chinese navy’s pirate ‘Flanker’s are now formidable machines and would pose a serious threat to any opposing carrier aircraft. Utilising the best of China’s indigenously developed (and highly respected) weapons and sensors, the J-15 is a sophisticated, agile and long range fighter. In terms of all-out performance, it enjoys a significant advantage over the Hornet family in several respects, most notably in high altitude performance.  A major drawback , however, is the relatively small size of China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier: its small deck is too short to facilitate take-off and landings of J-15s at heavy weights, and so does not allow them to be used to their full potential (the carrier uses STOBAR instead of cats and traps). The J-15D is a two-seat electronic warfare variant akin to the US EA-18G Growler.

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2. Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet

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The Super Hornet rectified the legacy Bug’s main shortcomings of limited range and bring-back (the weight of stores that the aircraft can bring back to the carrier after a mission). It also featured radar cross-section reduction measures that are rumoured to make it the stealthiest fighter (in terms of frontal cross section) this side of the F-35/ F-22 (though Dassault may dispute this). The Super Hornet retains the ‘Turbo Nose’ of the Hornet (the almost uncanny ability to point the aircraft quickly and accurately). Though the APG-79 AESA radar of Block II aircraft has been plagued with unreliability issues, it was one of the first to offer simultaneous air and ground modes. The Super Hornet is fitted with some great kit, and is compatible with a larger range of stores than any other fighter on this list. It falls down in its poor performance at higher altitudes and speed, where its relative lack of poke is a real issue. Despite this, the Super Hornet has repeatedly proven its ability to rise to any challenges as a robust and reliable fighter-bomber. (All US Navy fighters are supported by the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, a powerful force multiplier with a ‘stealth-busting’ UHF radar).

1. Dassault Rafale M

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Dassault’s Rafale is a masterpiece of aeronautical engineering. Despite being burdened with the additional weight of being a carrier fighter, it can mix it with the best fighters in the world (which it has demonstrated on exercises with the F-22 and Typhoon). In performance terms, it is closely matched to the Typhoon, with the French fighter enjoying an advantage at lower altitudes. Few fighters excel at both the fighter and the bomber mission, yet the Rafale is a rare exception. According to one test pilot, the Rafale’s flight control system is unmatched in its responsiveness and precision (and markedly superior to the F-16). This is an important consideration, especially for a carrier fighter. Defended by SPECTRA, which some regard as the best defensive aids suite in the world, guided by one of the world’s most sophisticated radars, and well armed with weapons that include the most advanced aircraft cannon – the Rafale is the hottest naval fighter in the world.

 

Special thanks to George Caveney and Air Force Monthly’s Thomas Newdick 

You can find out about the worst carrier aircraft here 

“Never fly the ‘A’ model of anything” expect amends to this article over the next few weeks. 

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Top Combat Aircraft of 2030

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Jim Smith had significant technical roles in the development of the UK’s leading military aviation programmes. From ASRAAM and Nimrod, to the JSF and Eurofighter Typhoon. We asked him to predict the top combat aircraft of 2030. This paper speculates about the future in the air combat domain. It draws on available open-source information about current aircraft and projects, and adds a healthy dose of pure speculation about the nature and objectives of possible future systems.

Looking ahead 10 years from today, what are the key trends for future combat aircraft?

In considering this, I assume continued proliferation of highly-capable long-range ground-based missile systems, coupled with continuing advances in radars, electro-optic sensor systems, long-range air-to-air missiles, and the emergence of operational hypersonic weapons.

How does this affect the design and/or development of future air combat systems?

To me, one emergent feature is a tendency to convergence in future technical solutions. The hostile air and ground counter-air environment is likely to ensure all future combat aircraft will seek to be stealthy, certainly in radar signature, but also as far as possible in the IR. There is already a detectable trend towards larger, longer-range platforms, capable either of wide area response to counter air threats, or the long-range delivery of strike and area-denial weapons at significant stand-off ranges, at least for those operators with large geography to protect or control.

Additionally, the range, and hence size of air-launched weapons is increasing, again promoting a trend towards larger platforms. When this is coupled with a need to carry powerful sensors, and to be, as far as possible, stealthy, it is likely that platform agility will become less of a driver. Propulsion technologies continue to advance, and may, in some instances pace airframe development.

So what form does this convergence in platform design take? At present there appear to be three favoured configurations:

  1. Large, twin-engine, closely-coupled, tailed near-delta configuration. Exemplified by the F-22 and the Su-57, this configuration appears to be aimed at the manoeuvrable, air-superiority role, with an additional emphasis on all-aspect stealth. It is expected to be used to control and deny contested airspace, and to create local air superiority to enable other missions.
  2. Smaller, single or twin-engine, close-coupled, tailed near-delta configuration. Exemplified by the F-35 (single engine) and J-31 (twin-engine), this configuration appears to be primarily aimed at multi-role missions delivering strike, with an organic air combat capability. Penetration of contested airspace will be required to deliver the strike role, but supersonic performance and energy manoeuvrability will not be as great as the F-22/Su-57 class.
  3. Large, twin-engine, long-coupled canard, near-delta. Exemplified by the J-20, this class of aircraft appears to maximise payload-range and weapons flexibility, with some potential compromise to signature and manoeuvre capability. One key, and new, role could be as Area Access Denial systems, using long range weapons to engage (or deter) not only threat combat aircraft, but enablers such as tankers and AEW platforms.

Notwithstanding this convergence in high-end air combat capabilities, small Nations seeking to deter and defend against aggression, rather than to dominate outside their borders, are likely to continue to need an agile, rapid response, interception capability, probably supplemented by the best available ground-based systems. Some older platforms, with suitable long-range weapons and system upgrades, will still have capability in this role, and some emerging projects exist that appear to be adopting J-31-like (twin-engine F-35) configurations.

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It is important to realise that the delivery of air capability will be dependent not only on platform capabilities, but much more critically, on the total air combat system. In the end, any of the future combat aircraft discussed below will also rely on the performance of on-board and off-board sensors; command and control, communications, networking and datalinks; weapons capabilities; organic and off-board electronic warfare and protection systems, and so on. Material on US projects suggests the use of cooperative autonomous systems to enable strike operations,  including targeting, deception, communications relay and electronic attack.

Consequently, the trend for further integration and networking of air and ground-based sensors, and on-board and off-board electronic warfare systems will continue, in an effort to gain a situational awareness advantage, and to deny situational awareness to threats. This itself, is likely to increase pressure to further develop cyber and deception capabilities, to degrade and dis-integrate opposition air defences. It is also possible that future efforts by the three big players (US, Russia and China) may seek to exploit some space-based capabilities, beyond the current pervasive use of GPS.

This piece is speculative. It does not draw on any special knowledge. Instead, I consider what might be likely responses to the developing environment. As guesses about the future are notoriously unreliable, I expect many will disagree with my assessments. That’s OK – I don’t pretend to know the future, but I’m happy to provoke a bit of debate.

Air combat systems – 2030

At the end of the next decade, the mature and emergent systems are likely to be:

US mature US emergent

F-22 F/A-XX

F-35 F-X

Russia mature Russia emergent

Su-57 Mig 41

Su-35 derivatives

China mature

J-20

J-31

Europe mature Europe emergent

Typhoon Tempest

Rafale Airbus-Dassault FCAS

Gripen E

Other emergent

TFX Korea

F3 Japan

India ?

Brief comments on these systems follow, indicating my view of the current state of play, and expressing some views on capability in the 2030 timeframe, program aspects etc. starting with the those that are likely to be mature in 2030.

2030 Mature Systems

Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor 

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Role: Air Superiority (Penetrating Air Combat)

Configuration: A

2018 Status: Mature

2030 Status: At life-of-type

The aircraft is successful in service, but has poor availability, and is (by US standards) small in numbers. As a result, F-22 presence is often in the form of small deployed detachments rather than significant numbers.

The enigma about the F-22 is that there has been continued resistance to proposed upgrade programs. This suggests that US plans for a replacement are already in hand and perhaps proceeding in the Black world. While the F/A-XX program is examining replacements for the F-18 E/F, there is little visibility of the USAF F-X program intended to replace the F-22.

If a future program fails to mature in time, an upgrade may be required. This would be likely to address electronic obsolescence, and bring radar, EW and other systems up to the state-of-the-art. A desirable, but unlikely, upgrade would be a fuselage stretch to increase fuel capacity and increase weapons-bay length, increasing mission flexibility.

Breaking news, as this article was being prepared, is a pitch from Lockheed-Martin to the DoD (and possibly Japan), to upgrade F-22 with elements of the F-35 mission system, as well as some changes to structure and coatings.

Lockheed F-35 Lightning II 

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Role: Multi-Role (Strike, plus Air Defence, plus Situational awareness node)

Configuration: B (single engine)

2018 Status: In development, and in service

2030 Status: Mature

The F-35 is set to be the mainstay of many Nations’ air capability for the next two decades. At present, although the aircraft is in service, the development program continues.

The initial challenges in the program were seen to lie in developing a common configuration meeting Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps needs, with stealth, good supersonic and manoeuvre performance, and, where required ASTOVL and carrier capability. In practice, the real challenge has turned out to be software integration and qualification, for the many diverse systems incorporated in the aircraft.

By 2030, the aircraft and its systems should be fully mature, and at the peak of its capability. In USAF service, the aircraft is seen as a strike adjunct to the F-22, but is perhaps increasing in importance as the availability of the F-22 has been relatively poor. The enabling aspects of JSF in providing and distributing situational awareness within and across the force is a key, and perhaps under-appreciated capability.

Sukhoi Su-35 derivatives

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Image Credit: Jacek Siminski

Role: Air Combat (with numerous other variants)

Configuration: Conventional

2018 Status: Mature

2030 Status: Obsolescent

I would not consider the Su-35 to be a major capability in 2030, except, perhaps in the Air Defence role, where its long range, high speed, large radar, and ability to carry large numbers of long-range AAMs, should continue to provide significant deterrence against all but the highest-end threats.

Sukhoi Su-57

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Role: Air Superiority (Penetrating Air Combat)

Configuration: A

2018 Status: In development, just entering service

2030 Status: Mature

The Su-57 could turn out to be an enduring and significant air combat capability. In 2018, the type has just been operationally deployed for the first time, and, assuming development continues, the aircraft should eventually provide a significant air superiority capability, with low signature, good performance and range.

How successful the program will be in delivering a well-integrated, well-armed, highly capable low signature fighter remains to be seen. With good program outcomes, this could be the Su-27 for the 2020s and beyond. At the time of writing, limited production is in progress, and there is some suggestion that the pace of the program has been slowed, either to await the readiness of the production standard engine, or in response to economic conditions.

There is a potential for large numbers of aircraft to be produced to replace both the MiG-29 and Su-35 in Russian service, and a somewhat variable prospect that the Su-57 might be co-produced in India to meet their future heavy fighter requirements. While the aircraft is still in development, final program outcomes are unknown, but I would expect Su-57 to emerge as a highly capable, well-equipped and mature capability by 2030.

Chengdu J-20

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Role: Multi-Role (Air Defence, Area Denial, Precision Strike)

Configuration: C

2018 Status: In development, just entering service

2030 Status: Mature

The J-20 represents the first of what is, in my view, a new class of combat aircraft. While the aircraft could easily deliver a MiG-31-like large area air defence capability, I believe it has a broader remit, dependent on the availability of large, long-range, and possibly hypersonic weapons.

The long-coupled canard near-delta configuration should deliver a broad centre of gravity range. When this is coupled with the large size of the aircraft, its high fuel capacity and large weapons bays, I suggest that the J-10 would be well suited to what we used to call in the UK the Control and Denial of Theatre Airspace, over very large geographic areas.

The aircraft has just entered service, and has attracted recent attention as it has been seen carrying an external targeting pod. Future roles are going to be dependent on weapons integration, but long-range air defence, including access denial to not just combat aircraft, but AWACS, tankers and ships is not beyond the realms of possibility. Currently, China seems to have the ability to develop and field complex systems with remarkable speed. The J-20 is likely to be a significant player within a decade.

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Shenyang J-31

Role: Multi-Role (Strike, plus Air Defence, plus Carrier Air Defence)

Configuration: B (twin engine)

2018 Status: In development

2030 Status: Mature

The J-31 is a twin-engine F-35 look-alike, and appear to have been designed to deliver similar roles, although it is not entirely clear whether the primary Chinese role will be as a carrier-borne aircraft or not.

The configuration is very similar to the F-35, but it is suggested that the aircraft may carry the PL-15 missile, which is similar to the MBDA Meteor.

By 2030, the J-31 should be mature and in service, presumably with the Chinese Navy carriers, but possibly also with other Nations, as the system appears to be being offered for export. However, the likely customers are perhaps limited (Pakistan, Egypt?). Much will depend on how well integrated and networked the J-31 turns out to be.

That said, as a carrier-based strike aircraft, with the additional capability of carrying effective and long-range AAMs, the J-31 could still fill a useful niche in tactical control, for example, of South China Sea airspace.

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Notes: if thrust vectoring is fitted to the J-31- as has been tested-  it will be virtually unbeatable in the close-in combat regime. 

Eurofighter Typhoon/Dassault Rafale

rafale-typhoon.jpg

Role: Multi-Role (Air Superiority, Air Defence, Strike)

Configuration: Close-coupled canard-delta

2018 Status: Mature, but in spiral development

2030 Status: Mature

Typhoon and Rafale represent high-end 4th generation capability. Equipped with a wide range of weapons systems, their capabilities continue to be enhanced. The introduction of Meteor on both aircraft, and active e-scan radar on Typhoon, should ensure that these capable aircraft remain effective for some time to come.

Both aircraft have some signature reduction measures in place, but are not considered stealthy. As a result, over time, their ability to deliver Air Superiority may diminish somewhat. That said, the long-range of the Meteor AAM should mean their effectiveness is retained against all but the most challenging threats. In permissive environments, their flexibility in the strike role should ensure their continued effectiveness out to 2030.

Saab Gripen E/F

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Role: Multi-Role (Air Defence, Strike, Situational Awareness)

Configuration: Close-coupled canard-delta

2018 Status: Completing development

2030 Status: Mature

The Gripen E is a highly integrated agile air defence aircraft, with a robust and flexible strike capability. The E/F-model, particularly when operating in a networked environment, will remain a capable air defence aircraft out to 2030 and beyond. Although not a stealth aircraft, its ability to use and share networked information allows third-party targeting and high situational awareness. Armed with Meteor and IRIS-T, and with an active e-scan radar, Gripen E/F will remain a capable air defence aircraft in the 2030s environment.

However, it is likely that by the 2030s, the proliferation of highly capable surface-to-air systems and stealthy air defence platforms will increasingly challenge Gripen in the air superiority and strike roles. Gripen has been quite widely exported, and should retain significant capability as a regional air defence and strike system against all but the most capable threat systems.

Speculation – Developmental Systems

The systems discussed below are those about which little is known at present, and, in some cases, are just conjecture. For convenience, I’ll consider the known or likely needs of the key players – the US, Russia, China, Europe and other nations.

US – future systems

As we have seen from the earlier discussion, there is an emerging capability gap around USAF air superiority systems, given the lack of a program for a capability upgrade to the F-22. A replacement program, F-X, is in existence, but little hard information is available. There is also a lack of clarity about future US Navy plans to replace the F/A-18 E/F/G under the F/A-XX program.

USAF 6th Generation Fighter F-X

BQ3JS5F5ZJAVND3ATCVI7VY45M

Role: Air Superiority (Penetrating Air Combat)

Configuration: Unknown

2018 Status: In development (?)

2030 Status: Entry to service

The limited information available suggests that the USAF is seeking a system-of-systems approach, where a range of sensor, communications, electronic, cyber, platform(s) and weapons would deliver its future capability. There is an indication that the platform element of this would gave significantly greater range and payload than the current F-22, while retaining the ability to be both stealthy and supersonic.

One enabler for this is seen as the use of variable cycle propulsion systems, offering modes at higher bypass ratio for the cruise, and lower bypass ration for take-off, acceleration and dash. Adjunct systems are likely, and might include long-range ground-based air defence systems; stand-off, and possibly space-based, sensor systems; and, speculatively, some autonomous systems which might deliver targeting, communications relay or EW capabilities.

Given US conviction of its superiority in LO technologies, this aspect is likely to be emphasised. Consequently, I would not anticipate a J-10 style solution as the US believe canards too much of a compromise in this area. There has been substantial research in unconventional control devices for LO systems, and there is a US desire to avoid vertical tail surfaces if possible.

Based on all this – a large highly swept delta, with minimal tail surfaces, and active use of innovative control systems appears likely. To be effective, such a platform would need to carry highly effective and long-range AAMs, and would be supported by networked detection, tracking and targeting systems, as well as stand-off electronic warfare and cyber capabilities.

Prototyping, technology development and risk reduction activities are likely to be taking place, possibly as Black programs.

F/A-XX

sixth_generation_f_a_xx_fighter_by_rodrigoavella-dbxsdk5.jpg

Role: Multi-role (Air Defence, Strike, EW)

Configuration: Unknown

2018 Status: In development (?)

2030 Status: Entry to service

The F/A-XX program reflects a US Navy need to replace the F/A-18 E, F, and G in the mid-2020s as these platforms reach their service lives. Compared to the USAF requirement for a 6th gen fighter, the future F/A-XX is likely to constrained by carrier deck size and possible weight constraints, and also by the necessity to operate within the deployed environment of the carrier battle group.

The available material discussing the project expresses similar aspirations to F-X in terms of the system being networked and integrated with other components in order to achieve the required capability effects. That said, there are suggestions that the US Navy may seek a somewhat more agile system that that proposed for the USAF.

There are some interesting programmatic issues, not least the question as to why the Navy doesn’t simply acquire more F-35C to replace the Super Hornets. My guess is that the Navy will seek to have a program which draws on the technologies being developed for F-X and F/A-XX, but will seek to acquire a Navy-specific solution rather than a common system.

On configuration, I think a Navy F/A-XX would be smaller and more agile than the Air Force F-X. It will also need compromises to be made to achieve the deck landing and take-off requirements, and these may result in a somewhat less stealthy solution than the F-X.

Prototyping, technology development and risk reduction activities are likely to be taking place, possibly as Black programs.

Russia – future systems

RAC MiG MiG-41

Mig41_1.png

Role: Air Defence (Area Denial?)

Configuration: Unknown (A?)

2018 Status: In Development

2030 Status: Entry to service

The MiG 41 is a replacement for the MiG 31 interceptor, currently in service with the Russian Air Force. Very little information is available, and what is available appears contradictory and unlikely.

There is discussion of an aircraft capable of Mach 4+; reference is made to the MiG 41 being a totally new design; but other sources suggest it will draw heavily on the in-service MiG 31.

What can be said is that the MiG-41 will be large, fast and heavy. All these attributes are driven by the geography of Russia and the consequential vast area of airspace that the interceptor force would seek to control. We can also say that the aircraft will carry high powered electronically scanned radars, will have good electronic attack and protection systems, and will deploy large, long-range, and probably hypersonic air-to-air missiles.

Although I would expect some efforts to be made to reduce the signature of the aircraft compared to the MiG 31, I doubt this will dominate, because the interception mission is likely to involve high-speed and high-power operations, resulting in a significant IR signature. Also, I would expect the Russians to seek to out-gun their threats by using very long-range high-speed weapons, enabling the carrier aircraft to stay out of harm’s way.

A possible configuration would be a twin-engine, close-coupled tailed near-delta, significantly larger than the F-22. I’d expect a more shaped and slender appearance than the current MiG 31, and large internal weapons bays to support long-range hypersonic AAMs and area denial weapons.

European – future systems

Team Tempest Tempest

Team Tempest infographic CREDIT BAE SYSTEMS

Role: Multi-role (Air Superiority, Strike, EW)

Configuration: Unknown (A?)

2018 Status: Concept Development

2030 Status: Nearing entry to service

At this stage, not too much should be read into the configuration shown at the recent Farnborough Show. The general shape and size, however, and the associated presentation material, are well-aligned with the hypothesis that the future direction for air combat systems is towards large, stealthy, very flexible platforms, operating in a highly cooperative networked system-of-systems.

The final form of Tempest will depend on which Nations come on board to participate in the project. In essence, the choice here is a bit limited, as France and Germany have announced their own project and are thus ruled out, at least for the moment. In addition, Tempest would be competitive with future US systems, and there are strong disincentives for BAE to collaborate on this project with the US, as this would result in significant constraints due to US International Traffic in Arms Regulation legislation, and might also impact on its desire for design leadership.

Who else might become involved? Possibilities would appear to include Italy, Sweden and Turkey, all of which are not strongly aligned with the US, and are likely to have future air combat needs. Japan can be ruled out, due to its close ties with the US, and India is also unlikely, due to its recent technical alignment being with Russia rather than the West.

Whatever partners are involved, alignment of requirements will be the key. This might just be a problem for Sweden, which despite strong past industrial cooperation between SAAB and BAE Systems, might just prefer a smaller, more agile local air defence solution rather than the ambitious air superiority and penetrating strike capabilities at which Tempest appears to be directed.

Airbus-Dassault FCAS

20171108_FutureAirPower_1920x1080.jpg

Role: Multi-role (Air Superiority, Strike)

Configuration: Unknown

2018 Status: Concept development

2030 Status: Nearing entry to service

Airbus Defence and Space of Germany, and Dassault of France, have agreed to cooperate on the FCAS project to develop a future European combat aircraft. The information available on this project is very slight, but follows the familiar themes of being stealthy and operating as part of a networked system-of-systems.

Material from Airbus includes a twin-engine, tailed, near-delta configuration with twin vertical fins. Dassault material includes a significantly more challenging twin-engine tailless delta, with no vertical surfaces. Both concepts appear somewhat smaller than the BAE Systems Tempest configuration shown at Farnborough, and may thus be aimed at the fighter mission with a secondary strike capability, rather than a true multi-role platform.

Key issue for this program will be alignment with potential customer requirements, workshare, and whether Europe can sustain two ambitious combat aircraft development programs.

Other future systems

KFX/TFX

KFX_model

Role: Multi-Role (Air Defence, plus Strike)

Configuration: B (twin engine)

2018 Status: Proposed development

2030 Status: Uncertain

The KFX and TFX are similar twin-engine F-35 look-alikes. Both Nations expect to operate the F-35, although this currently looks a bit uncertain for Turkey. Consequently, the rationale for developing a similar configuration and size of aircraft appears questionable. My interpretation is that both Nations are seeking to enhance their Industrial capability in the aerospace sector, and the FX projects provide a way of achieving this.

I would expect both aircraft to focus on the Air Defence role,  because this would provide an opportunity to supplement rather than simply duplicate F-35 capability. It is not clear whether a secondary strike role for the aircraft is envisaged.

The KFX is slightly smaller than the otherwise similar TFX, and is likely to be powered by two (probably license-built) GE F414 engines. The TFX is the subject of a technical agreement with BAE, and interestingly two EJ200 engines are proposed.

Both programs are to some extent at political risk. It is far from clear how the relationship between South Korea and North Korea will develop, and this, together with the relationship between South Korea and the USA, is likely to have a strong influence on the KFX. Equally, Turkey’s aspiration to operate the F-35 is at substantial risk because of the poor current relationship with the USA. If that situation is not resolved, Turkey may follow a different path, resulting also in a change in direction for the TFX program.

Minor update for the TFX: It has recently been reported that GE F110 (probably the -129 version) was selected for the prototype(s)

Indian AMCA

20160417082538966

Role: Air Superiority (Penetrating Air Combat)

Configuration: A

2018 Status: Immature concept development

2030 Status: Unlikely

The AMCA is an attempt to leap from the much-delayed Tejas to a high-end Indian F-22. On the face of it the design appears to be immature. There would need to be significant advances in Indian capabilities to field the engine, develop and refine a true stealth configuration, and integrate the aircraft and weapons system.

The only way I could see this aircraft being realised in the supposed time-scale would be with very significant assistance from a third party. India has had talks with Russia about the Su-57 for this role, and the very existence of the AMCA project suggests that these have not been successful.

I’m calling this one improbable at this stage. The project is possibly a fall-back option should the Su-57 approach fail, but in that event, it is unclear who might be approach to assist in development.

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Conclusions

All the major air combat players appear to be taking the view that Air Superiority and Strike in the 2030s will be delivered by a networked system-of-systems. The air platforms will be generally large, stealthy, and capable of delivering Air Superiority and Strike capabilities. It is likely that long-range AAMs and strike weapons will be used, and the platform capabilities will be supplemented by adjunct systems, which might include targeting, electronic attack, decoy, communications and cyber capabilities. China and Russia are likely to deploy long-range hypersonic weapons with the intent of creating an Area Denial capability.

It would be surprising if the US were not to follow suit, and given the time required to develop complex air combat systems, it would be surprising if substantial F-X and F/A-XX related activities were not underway in the Black Project world. The recent floating by Lockheed-Martin of a proposal to upgrade the F-22, using the systems developed for the F-35, may indicate an emerging need for a capability sustainment program to keep the F-22 in service longer, while awaiting the outcome of a replacement program.

The most significant air combat systems in 2030 would appear likely to be:

Air Superiority

US: F-X, F/A-XX

Russia: Su-57

Access Denial

Russia: MiG-41

China: J-20

Air Defence

France/Germany: FCAS

Sweden: Gripen E/F

China: J-31

Multi-role

UK & partners: Tempest

Or a joint program with Airbus-Dassault and BAE Systems

US: F-35

What else could be out there?

This paper does not consider purely Strike systems. It is, however likely that all the major parties will continue the development of stealthy autonomous strike systems. In the US this might be the Lockheed SR-91, or its Boeing competitor.

All the major parties are also focussed on hypersonic weapons systems. Not only are such systems hard to defeat, they almost inevitably have long-range. Applications are likely in area denial, and in countering high-value assets. Boost-glide vehicles are a possibility, offering the prospect of rapid (non-nuclear) strategic strike capability.

Autonomous vehicle applications are already extending beyond strike and reconnaissance, into tankers, communications relay, and electronic warfare, and this trend will continue.

 

The Ultimate World War I Fighters

“Biplanes are soooo 1918”

A hundred years ago the armistice of November 11th 1918 ended the fighting on the Western Front and largely brought to a close four years of continuous frenetic aviation development. Had the fighting continued into 1919 these are the types that would have been in the front line; Snarks and Rumplers would have been as well known today as Camels and Fokkers. 

Mehr davon bitte! The SPAD 13 was amongst the best fighters of 1918, what would take the top spot in 1919?

This group represents the ultimate development in Great War fighter aircraft yet despite their potential, none of these aircraft saw operational service before the end of hostilities and chances are you’ve never heard of any of them (unless you’re over 100 years old and happened to be employed in the aviation sector in the early interwar period).

In 1918 aircraft designs were churned out at an astounding rate, for example the Fokker V20 of early 1918 was allegedly designed and built in six and a half days. As a result the aircraft below are limited to single seat, single engine aircraft only to limit the potential entries and help maintain the sanity of the compiler.

Honourable Mention: Orenco-Curtiss Model D

“I am quite attractive and historically significant, why did not they save me from the scrapman?”

Be an American Eagle! (fly a French plane)

Despite being the first nation to actually fly an aeroplane, US aviation lagged behind the European powers when they entered the conflict in 1917. All the combat aircraft operated by the American Expeditionary Force over the Western front were either French or British. In 1919 however the first indigenous American fighter design to enter production (though still equipped with a French engine) took to the air in the form of the Orenco Model D.

The aircraft was apparently excellent, test pilot Clarence Coombs (who gained second place in the inaugural Pulitzer Trophy the following year in the Curtiss Kitten) reporting “This aircraft performs better than the Sopwith Camel and Snipe, the Thomas-Morse, the Nieuport and Morane Parasol, the Spad and S.V.A.” which was praise indeed, and thus the Army ordered a batch of fifty production aircraft. So why is Orenco virtually unknown today? Well it turned out that the US Army had bought the rights to the design from Orenco and then offered a tender to companies to actually build the production aircraft. In a cruel twist, the winning (i.e. cheapest) bid came not from Orenco themselves but from the aviation giant Curtiss. Curtiss tinkered with the design a little and duly manufactured the fifty fighters.

Orenco meanwhile folded shortly afterwards and became largely forgotten by history. 

10. Sopwith Snark

“Do you like Lewis Carroll?” “Not really, no”

Likely possessing the coolest name ever applied to an aircraft, the Sopwith Snark was a crazy blend of the somewhat old-fashioned and incredibly futuristic. The Snark’s triplane format was generally considered passé by the end of the war but its revival by Sopwith (whose Triplane of 1916 was one of the greatest successes of the conflict) was not simply an exercise in nostalgia. One of two fighters proposed by Sopwith (the other being a run-of-the-mill biplane named the Snapper) in 1918 to replace its own Snipe, which was then entering service, the Snark was intended to operate at high altitude and the low wing loading offered by the triplane layout was seen as ideal to maintain manoeuvrability at height. It also conferred upon the Snark a prodigious weight-lifting capacity which was employed to carry the Snark’s unprecedented armament of six machine guns. This installed armament made it the most heavily armed fighter of the Great war period and would not be equalled until the prototype Gloster Gauntlet took to the skies in 1932 with the same arrangement of four wing-mounted Lewis and two fuselage Vickers gun installation. Even then the Gauntlet reverted to just the twin Vickers armament in its production guise. 

The four square patches visible on the lower wing provided access to the ammunition drums of the Lewis guns. The firepower of the Snark would not be surpassed by a British fighter until the prototype Hawker Hurricane was fitted with eight Brownings in August 1936.

 

Similarly forward-looking was its construction, the Snark featured a wooden monocoque fuselage that conferred high strength for low weight. It would be the last RAF fighter, experimental or otherwise, to fly with such a fuselage until the prototype Mosquito fighter W4052 of 1941. The Snark appeared in public on just one occasion and it was noted that it ‘chucked stunts’ and seemed ‘uncommonly fast’. Upon landing out popped test pilot Harry Hawker, who was flying without a coat, though ‘everybody else was cold enough though well wrapped up.” 

Massive cuts to the armed forces at the end of the war meant that there would be no production order for the forward-looking, stunt-chucking and demonstrably warm Snark, thus depriving aviation writers the opportunity to use the phrase ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ in articles and features for evermore. A cruel blow.

Despite a nearly-successful entry into the motorcycle manufacturing business (Under the name ABC motors), Sopwith was saddled with insurmountable tax debts from its massive wartime production and was wound up in 1920. Though Tom Sopwith, Harry Hawker and three others immediately bought the assets of Sopwith as the H.G. Hawker Engineering company which would ultimately become a giant of the British aviation industry. 

9. Zeppelin D.I

In 1918, Germany’s strict Irony laws (die Ironiegesetze) decreed that all metal aircraft had to be photographed in front of trees.

Designed by Claude Dornier, the Zeppelin D.I was one of very few truly revolutionary aircraft in aviation history. The first aircraft to be built and flown with a stressed-skin metal construction throughout, the Zeppelin was the progenitor of virtually all modern fixed wing aircraft but never entered service and today is obscure in the extreme. 

Zeppelin sold two D.Is to the US in 1921. One was evaluated by the Navy and this one by the Army Air Service. Despite being earmarked for preservation it was scrapped in 1926.

Zeppelin’s name is inextricably linked with airships but the company were (and indeed still are) specialists in more general aluminium engineering so it was hardly surprising that they would seek to apply this material to aircraft construction. In the case of the D.I, construction was of duralumin (an alloy of aluminium and copper) throughout. This alloy would later be used to build the ill-fated Hindenburg passenger airship. 

Zeppelin’s D.I was present, though not an official entry, at the second fighter competition at Adlershof but was struck by incredible ill-fortune. Despite being grounded at the factory’s behest pending fitment of the correct wing attachment, the Zeppelin was flown anyway and fatally crashed when the upper wing departed from the aircraft, killing ace Wilhelm Reinhard. Curiously The D.I had been flown minutes earlier by Herman Goering and one wonders how history would have changed had he been the victim rather than the luckless Reinhard. This accident, though seemingly the result of ill-luck rather than any flaw in the aircraft inevitably coloured opinions. Whether or not this had an effect when the Zeppelin appeared at the next fighter contest is open to question but despite its promise the metal aircraft did not put up a particularly good showing, even when fitted with Germany’s best inline engine, the 185 hp BMW. “Does not possess characteristics of a modern fighter. Ailerons too heavy.” noted  Heinrich Bongartz, commander of the Aircraft Test Centre at Aldershof in a remarkably succinct but damning report. Had fighting continued it is likely that a developed version would have addressed the shortcomings this aircraft possessed.

Too advanced for you: Dornier Do H Falke

Unlike so many other hopeful German types, work on this fighter did not cease with the treaty of Versailles so we are granted a tangible glimpse of how this machine would have evolved if the conflict had continued. Dornier developed the design into the monoplane Dornier Do H ‘Falke’ (Falcon) of 1922, five examples of which were built in Switzerland and Italy. The Falke demonstrated a terrific turn of speed but never entered production, being apparently just too ahead of its time. The US Navy for example declared it was ‘too advanced’ for their needs after evaluating the aircraft in 1923.

8. Pfalz D.XV

“Am I not a looker?”

Recipient of a major production order exactly one week before the end of hostilities, the Pfalz D.XV bid fair to reverse the prevailing attitude that Pfalz fighters were invariably inferior to their Fokker rivals. An unusual design, the fuselage of the Pfalz was placed halfway between upper and lower wing and attached to both by complex struts, resulting in a distinctly ungainly look. The D.XV was notable also for its complete absence of bracing wires as both wings were cantilever units. Despite its clumsy appearance, the new Pfalz was an impressive performer. When both were fitted with the same BMW engine, it was slightly faster than the Fokker D.VII and the new Pfalz matched its rival for rate of climb.

Entered into the third fighter trial at Adlershof, the performance of the D.XV was sufficient to warrant an order despite issues of tail-heaviness (which should have been relatively easy to cure) and being difficult to land – neither seen as particularly serious when weighed against the aircraft’s excellent performance. It was also noted that Pfalz’s production capacity was superior to Fokker and for this reason alone, the new fighter, at least as good as the D.VII but available quickly in great numbers made the Pfalz an extremely attractive machine to the Inspektion der Fliegertruppen (Idflieg).

“No, I am not”

The D.XV immediately entered production but time was not on Pfalz’s side and not a single example of the D.XV was to reach the front. It is not definitely known how many complete aircraft were built, probably no more than four, but in 1919, when Allied officials inspected Pfalz’s Speyer factory, they found 74 complete fuselages on the production line. Curiously, two D.XVs were exported to Italy for evaluation as late as 1920, presumably licence production there was being considered. The ultimate fate of both these aircraft sadly remains unknown.

Despite never again building a complete aircraft, Pfalz Flugzeugwerke still exists today, as a component subcontractor to both Airbus and Boeing amongst others.

7. Nieuport Nighthawk / Gloster Mars

“Tonight I’m going to party like I’m Negative no.1999”

Had the war continued into 1919 the British would have had a serious problem as virtually all their future aircraft types were designed around the ABC Dragonfly, a radial engine that promised much but delivered little. One such was the outstanding Nieuport Nighthawk, the design of which would set the standard for British fighters for the next twenty years. Despite its name, the Nieuport and General Company, often referred to as ‘British Nieuport’, was a completely separate entity to Nieuport in France. It had been set up to construct Nieuport aircraft under licence, hence the name, but by 1918 was building Sopwith Camels and eventually set up its own design office under Henry Folland, who had earlier designed the superlative SE5a. 

A Nighthawk demonstrating that it really can fly. This one has sensibly been re-engined with an Armstrong Siddeley Jaguar.

When the Dragonfly engine was running properly, the Nighthawk demonstrated superior characteristics to the Sopwith Snipe, and was the first of an array of radial-engined biplane fighters that formed the backbone of the RAF and Fleet Air Arm’s fighter force until the arrival of the Hurricane and Spitfire in the late 1930s. Despite being the ancestor of virtually all British inter-war fighters, the Nighthawk itself was plagued by the hopelessness of its engine. The Dragonfly never developed its advertised power, was prone to colossal overheating – Nighthawks under test were recorded landing with charred propellor hubs – and most seriously of all the engine had been inadvertently designed to run at its own resonance frequency, meaning that simply switching the engine on caused it to shake itself apart. 

Marketing a fighter aircraft to the public as a ‘sporting plane’ on the basis of compartments for ‘compact load’ suggests an air of desperation on the part of Nieuport and General.

The Nieuport and General Company closed down in 1920 but all was not lost for their seemingly unlucky aircraft. The Nighthawk was known to be an excellent design let down solely by its unreliable engine and production was continued by the Gloucestershire Aircraft company (later to be known as Gloster) who snapped up both development rights and designer Folland. At Gloster the Nighthawk was renamed the Mars, re-engined with a selection of motors that actually worked, and then developed into a confusing swathe of broadly similar types that served with distinction in many air arms across the globe. Examples included the Gloster Nightjar, essentially a Nighthawk with a Bentley rotary, which served operationally as a carrier fighter, and the similar Gloster Sparrowhawk, the first fighter operated by the Japanese Navy. Meanwhile on land a Nighthawk had been fitted with a Napier Lion and shorter wings, inexplicably named the Bamel, and became for a brief period the fastest aircraft in the world. Folland’s designs at Gloster progressed by a process of evolution by way of the Grebe, Gamecock and Gauntlet, to the famous Gladiator, the last fighter biplane of the RAF and a direct descendant of the Nighthawk.

6. Fokker V29

“Where the hell is my lower wing?! …Oh yeah, my mistake”

Similar but not the same: the Fokker D.X of 1921.

Fokker built the best fighting monoplane and biplane to serve the Central powers in significant numbers during the war, the V.29 prototype sought to combine the best of both worlds by marrying the fuselage of the biplane D.VII to the cantilever parasol wing of the D.VIII. This simple scheme resulted in an excellent aircraft that shared top place at the third Adlershof fighter competition in 1918 with the Rumpler D.I (of which more later). Pilots universally adjudged the V29 to have the best handling of all aircraft at the competition. If the war had continued the new fighter would have entered service as the Fokker D.IX and would likely have proved formidable. As it was, the amazing and continuing success of Fokker’s D.VII meant that there was no great rush to put the new monoplane into production and only the prototype was ever built. Some years later Fokker, by now operating once more in his native country of the Netherlands, built eleven of the D.X, a Hispano-Suiza powered development of the D.VIII which saw service in Spain and Finland and bore more than a passing resemblance to the earlier V29.

Unlike nearly every other manufacturer on this list, Fokker enjoyed great success producing both civil and military aircraft for many years until finally ceasing aircraft manufacture in 1996.

5. Rumpler D.I

Air ace Ernst Udet (left) chats with Edmund Rumpler in front of a D.I. Both survived the First World War only to die during the Second.

The height at which aircraft were compelled to operate had inexorably risen throughout the war and the tubby Rumpler D.I possessed unmatched high altitude performance. Described as ‘perhaps the best fighter Germany never had in 1918’, the D.I appeared in ever more developed form at three of the Adlershof fighter competitions and was declared joint winner of the third in concert with the lash-up Fokker V29.

Spot the difference: this earlier iteration of the D.I sports a more rounded rudder and different ailerons. Rumpler fiddled with the same basic design for over a year.

The Rumplertropfen was aerodynamic, refined and a massive flop. Several can be seen in Fritz Lang’s epic ‘Metropolis’.

Both were fitted with the exceptional BMW 185hp engine, specifically designed for high altitude performance and the results were impressive. During the competition the Rumpler was the only aircraft able to gain an altitude of 8200 metres, which was spectacular stuff indeed for 1918.

Despite immediately placing an order for 50 however, not a single machine made it to the front, though a total of 22, including prototypes, appears to have been built before fighting ceased. The cause for the delay seems to have been teething problems that Rumpler engineers could never quite overcome before the armistice; the D.I was a complicated aircraft fitted with such luxuries as cockpit heating, oxygen and radio equipment, and a monocoque fuselage and as such pointed the way forward not only to future fighters of greater sophistication but also ever-greater design and development timescales. Engineers at Rumpler had been tinkering with the design of what would become the D.I since mid 1917, a stark contrast to the rapid turnaround of designs at Fokker. 

Rumpler Flugzeugwerke was liquidated in 1920, though Edmund Rumpler went on to design the remarkable Rumplertropfen car which was a technical triumph but a commercial failure. Only 100 were built of which two survive today. Rumpler himself, being Jewish, had his career ruined after the Nazis gained power and was briefly imprisoned. He died in 1940.

4. Gordou-Leseurre Type B (later GL-2)

Flash Gordou: the world’s sole surviving Gordou-Leseurre is this Finnish GL.22 at the Finnish Air Force Museum.

Probably the best aircraft designed and built by brothers-in-law, the Gordou-Leseurre Type B was just beginning deliveries when the conflict ceased. The French were less monoplane-averse than their British allies and the Type B was the best of the numerous ‘parasol’ types built by the French during the war. As you may have guessed, the Type B was preceded by the Type A which was very fast indeed (in tests it was nudging 250 km/h which made it unofficially the fastest aircraft in the world) but doubts over the structural integrity of the wing mounting led to a modest redesign with a generally lightened structure and heavily reinforced wing. This process delayed service entry of the new aircraft, now named Type B, and as a result this extremely promising high speed monoplane missed the war, a mere 20 examples being manufactured of the initial 1918 version. 

The first French ‘arresting gear’ consisted of cables weighed down with sandbags. It didn’t work very well.

This was not the end of the story as developed versions saw limited production for the Aeronavale first as a fighter and then as an advanced trainer. This latter version conducted carrier trials aboard France’s first aircraft carrier Bearn and was adapted for use as a carrier reconnaissance aircraft.

Handfuls were produced for the air arms of Yugoslavia, Latvia, Estonia, Czechoslovakia and Finland and ultimately around 130 aircraft were built. The final three off the production line were civilian versions constructed in the early 1930s for use in competition aerobatics.

As is invariably the case with in-laws, relations between Gordou and Leseurre became strained and after producing a few modestly successful designs the company closed down in 1934.

3. Siemens-Schuckert D.VI

The D.VI demonstrates its ability to levitate its tail using only the power of ‘the Force’.

As everyone knows, the First World War ended in 1918. Except, of course, that it didn’t. It is true that the fighting ceased (mostly) in November 1918 but that was only an armistice. The war was actually brought to a close on the 28th June 1919 with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. In the intervening seven months, the German military had somewhat cheekily, but undeniably prudently, maintained aviation development work and even held a competition for new fighter aircraft at Adlershof between February and March 1919. Likewise Siemens-Schuckert flew the D.VI, their final aircraft design, in 1919.

The stubby D.VI was fast and agile but no one would call it pretty. This in-flight photograph is a fake.

Essentially a monoplane version of the earlier Siemens-Schuckert D.IV, the D.VI retained the exceptional rate of climb that had made its progenitor probably the best interceptor of the war and conferred upon it a useful increase in speed. The D.VI is also notable for being the only aircraft on this list powered by a rotary engine. Rotaries had been dominant as fighter powerplants in the mid-war period but had reached the limits of their development potential by 1919. The eleven cylinder Siemens-Halske Sh.III fitted to the D.VI represented the zenith of this engine type and its choice was no doubt influenced by its being built by the same parent company that made the airframe. By dint of an ingenious crank and gearing system, the torque that proved so deadly on other rotary powered aircraft such as the Sopwith Camel had been virtually eliminated and the high compression ratio meant that the Sh.III maintained an impressively high power output at altitude. As a straightforward development of a proven and formidable aircraft there is every chance the D.VI would have made for a potent fighter. As it turned out one of the prototypes was lost during testing and the other was unceremoniously burned to avoid it falling into Allied hands.

Germany had been notably more interested in the safety of their pilots than any of the other fighting powers – German fighter pilots were unique by the end of the war in that they were provided with parachutes. The D.VI continued this trend, its fuel tank was mounted externally and could be jettisoned if set on fire, giving the pilot a fighting chance to bring the aircraft safely down. Meanwhile pilots of all other nationalities could expect to burn to death in the event of their aircraft catching fire.  

2. Martinsyde F.4 Buzzard

Any British equipment associated with the First World War was contractually obliged to be photographed surrounded by mud.

The best British fighter aircraft of the war was doomed by bad timing to remain little more than a footnote in aviation history. Its success seemed assured with an order for 1450 from the RAF and several thousand more planned to be obtained or licence built by the US and France. A development of the earlier F.3, which despite excellent performance had been cursed by the non-availability of its preferred Rolls-Royce Falcon engine (which was required for the highly successful two-seat Bristol F.2b), the F.4 featured a modest redesign and mounted a more powerful Hispano-Suiza 8 delivering 300 hp. Thoroughly conventional, the Buzzard was well designed and sturdily built and its principle advantages lay in its colossal speed and exceptional rate of climb, both superior to any other British fighter.    

Spanish F.4 showing off. Airshows were more fun in 1928.

Delays in engine availability resulted in a mere 48 (or 57, depending on which source you believe) being delivered by the armistice, none of which made it to an operational squadron, though a handful were used by the Central Flying School. With the incredibly savage cutbacks to the RAF in the immediate postwar period, the Sopwith Snipe, an inferior aircraft in nearly every measurable performance parameter was selected as the RAF’s standard fighter, mainly because it was cheaper but also because it wasn’t powered by a foreign engine. Although, given the horrific debacle of the ABC Dragonfly, the fact that it was powered by a Hispano-Suiza rather than the benighted British radial would have counted massively in the Martinsyde’s favour if operational flying had continued into 1919. However all was not totally lost for Martinsyde, as the Buzzard enjoyed modest export success, ultimately flying in small numbers with the air forces of thirteen nations. Major users included Finland, Spain and the Soviet Union and eventually the creditable total of about 370 aircraft was built. 

This Buzzard is flying in the King’s Cup air race of 1922. It didn’t win.

Despite never serving its home nation operationally, it did see action with pro-treaty Free State forces during the Irish Civil war and despite being completely outdated performed limited operations during 1936 with the Republic Air force in the early stages of the Spanish Civil war. Amazingly Buzzards were used for training by Finland as late as 1940. Belgium was another potential export customer, the Belgian Air Force extensively tested an F.4 Buzzard as part of a competition to select a fighter to supplement their Fokker D.VIIs. The Buzzard lost out to the aircraft detailed below.

Like Sopwith, Martinsyde attempted to stave off postwar bankruptcy by manufacturing motorcycles. The motorcycles were excellent and quite successful but a factory fire in 1922 forced the company into liquidation. 

1. Nieuport 29 (later Nieuport-Delage Nid.29)

The best fighter in service anywhere in the world 1922.

Winner of an exhaustive competition to select a replacement for the outstanding SPAD XIII, the Nieuport-Delage NiD-29 would have been built in enormous numbers had war continued. Even with the outbreak of peace over 1500 of these excellent machines were built, roughly half by Nieuport, 600 of them under licence by Nakajima in Japan with SABCA in Belgium and Macchi and Caproni in Italy building a few hundred more.

Nieuport’s chief designer Gustave Delage was the fighter king in 1916 and 17, with thousands of his diminutive sesquiplane fighters swarming through the skies. Nieuports were operated by all the Allied nations and built under licence in most of them. Captured examples even served the Central powers in significant numbers. By 1918 however SPAD had stolen the top spot; in November 1918 literally every operational single-seat fighter in the French air force was a SPAD. The competing Nieuport 28 had to suffer the ignominy of being rejected for service by its home nation and palmed off on the Americans. Delage and Nieuport had to come up with something special to regain their ascendency and the magnificent Nieuport 29, an aircraft that would prove to be the fastest and highest flying in the world, was the result. 

To emphasise its inherent Frenchness Gustave Delage made sure the new Nieuport 29 was always photographed near a major French landmark.

By the spring of 1918 Monsieur Delage had been tinkering with a succession of prototype fighters to replace the Nieuport 28 on the production line. When specifications were announced for a new fighter by the Section Technique de l’aéronautique (STAé) Delage took what the best of these prototypes and modified it further. First flown in mid-1918 (sources differ on the date) the Nieuport 29 competed with the SPAD XXI, the Martinsyde Buzzard, and the Sopwith Dolphin (in its Mk II form developed and built by SACA in France) to fulfil the new fighter requirement. All four aircraft were equipped with the same Hispano-Suiza 8fb 300 hp engine and all were impressive performers. At this stage the 29 proved the fastest of the competitors but the Buzzard demonstrated the best rate of climb. The Nieuport also failed to attain the altitude required in the original specification. Delage quickly increased the span of the new fighter and lightened the structure resulting in a significant increase in both ceiling and climb rate and in this form the Nieuport 29 was considered the best of the competing types.

Major users of the NiD.29 included France, Japan, Italy, Siam (later Thailand) and, as seen here, Belgium.

Prudently the French ordered large production of all the entries except the poorest performer, the SPAD XXI. However the continuing success of the earlier SPAD XIII in service lent no great urgency to the development of the new aircraft types. Concurrent delays in production of the all-important Hispano-Suiza 8fb engine meant that by the armistice not a single Martinsyde nor Nieuport 29 had been delivered to the Armee de l’air Français, and only 20 or so Dolphins had been completed by SACA. The coming of peace led to an immediate wind-down of French aircraft requirements, orders for the British designed Buzzard and Dolphin were cancelled and development of the new Nieuport proceeded at a more leisurely pace.

Sadi-Lecointe on his way to winning the Coupe Deutsch de la Meurthe for fastest moustache.

And so the best French fighter to fly during the Great war finally entered service in 1922 as the Nieuport-Delage NiD-29, the change of name being considered necessary to distinguish the French company from its British offshoot Nieuport and General. It was the fastest fighter aircraft in service anywhere in the world.

In the intervening three years Nieuport-Delage had been far from idle, developing versions of the NiD.29 for both speed and altitude. The NiD.29V was the high-speed variant and was distinguishable from the standard NiD29 by its shortened wings. It set the first post-war official speed record with pilot  Joseph Sadi-Lecointe on February 7 1920 and later became the first aircraft to exceed 300 km/h in level flight. NiD.29Vs also won both the Coupe Deutsch de la Meurthe and Gordon Bennett cup air races in 1920. Meanwhile the NiD.40R, an extended span version with a Rateau turbocharger was piloted by Sadi-Lecointe to ever-greater heights culminating in a record of 11,145 m (36,565 ft) on October 30 1923. 

The high-altitude NiD.40R shows off its natty extended span wings. All aircraft are best observed whilst reclining in the long grass.

The military NiD.29s gave excellent, reliable service in France throughout the 1920s, equipping some 25 squadrons of the French air force, and three examples were used in combat during the Rif war in Morocco in 1925. The only other nation to use the NiD.29 operationally was Japan. Despite beginning withdrawal of their licence built version (the Nakajima Ko.4) in 1933, many were still in service when the Sino-Japanese conflict erupted in 1937 and saw brief service over Shanghai and Manchuria. A remarkable longevity of front-line service for a 1918 design.

Nakajima Ko.4: The Japanese were keen to make the NiD.29 look like it was from the 19th century for some reason.

Nieuport dropped the Delage name in 1932 after Gustave Delage’s retirement when it merged with the Loire aircraft company. Loire-Nieuport became a component part of the nationalised SNCAO concern in 1936.

Afterword:

If you want to see any of these aircraft in real life your best bet at present is to go to the Finnish Air Force Museum (Suomen Ilmavoimamuseo). There the sole remaining examples of the Martinsyde Buzzard and Gordou-Leseurre Type B are exhibited not just in the same location but the same room. The last surviving Nieuport-Delage NiD-29 is in the collection of the Musée de l’air in Paris but is not apparently on display at the moment. Sadly, not a single example of any of the other aircraft in this fascinating list has survived to the present day.

 

Top 10 beyond visual range fighter aircraft 2018: selection process and the science of BVR combat

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‘The Infinity of Lists’ by Umberto Eco is book that covers the topic of lists. Examples cited in the book range from Hesiod‘s list of the progeny of gods to Rabelais’ list of bottom-wipes. Listing, the compulsive mind’s attempt to impose order on a chaotic universe is everywhere, and is especially popular on the odious and wonderful thing you’re now using, the internet.

The top ten format of ‘listicle’ has long haunted the internet, leading me to take the rather lazy step of adopting it for this blog. Since this site started five years ago I’ve created a bunch of top 10s, ranging from the predictable (like the ‘Best fighters of World Two‘) to the deliberately silly (Top ten pusher aircraft, allegedly- but not actually – written by Werner Herzog). The furious responses the selections generated is both puzzling and to be expected. It’s odd in that you wouldn’t expect anyone to believe that reality actually conforms to a ‘top ten’ approach, and predictable in that the articles are intended to provoke debate; in some cases we have made deliberately contentious choices in our top 10s to catalyse such responses. Curiously, the fact that these articles could be said to trivialise or possibly celebrate war machines by using a format conceived for promoting pop music has not provoked any response.

Which, almost, neatly brings us to the Top 10 BVR fighters. BVR may be a daunting term, but simply stands for ‘beyond visual range’. Our top 10 is an attempt to choose the ten fighters that are best at shooting down other aircraft at ranges where the pilot cannot see the opponent with his or her eyes. That I decided to separate the aircraft into within-visual range (WVR) and BVR categories is a completely artificial device, but I hope, an interesting way to consider their relative merits. Each time I have assembled this annual list I have quizzed experts in the field (though many, including Jim Smith, may not self identify as such) to help me reach my conclusions. Jim Smith had significant technical roles in the development of the UK’s leading military aviation programmes. From ASRAAM and Nimrod, to the JSF and Eurofighter Typhoon. When I asked him to order operational fighter aircraft in a top 10, he asked me to consider the nature of BVR combat and sub-categories within it. As his answers were fascinating in themselves, I have presented them here as a teaser preceding the sharing of our top 10 BVR fighters of 2018. Over to Jim….

BVR Fighter Assessment

Birds of a feather ...

OVER VIRGINIA — An F-15 Eagle is joined in formation by F-16 Fighting Falcons during a training sortie here April 19. The F-15 is assigned to the 71st Fighter Squadron at Langley Air Force Base, Va., and the F-16 is assigned to the Virginia Air National Guard’s 192nd Fighter Wing in Richmond. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Ben Bloker)

I am going to start by considering what is different about BVR combat, and what system characteristics are needed to succeed? From there, I’ll go on to examine whether the scenario or setting for the air combat makes a difference to the system requirements, and then have a go at ranking aircraft in different scenarios.

I’ll leave it to you, to draw on your sources on the current state of development of the various systems. Were I to attempt this, I’d need to be aware of material I certainly could not bring to this forum.

What is required to deliver a BVR air combat capability?

Here’s how I look at BVR as a capability:

The 4 things you need to achieve, all in the context of survival, are:

Locate the target

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at a sufficient distance to be able to decide what to do

– preferably without being detected yourself

These two elements of locate then push you towards platforms that

– have powerful on-board detection systems, such as Electronically-scanned radars, big radars, Low Probability of Exploitation (LPE) radars, and Infra-Red Seeker Trackers (IRST)

– and/or operate in a well-integrated system of systems, with datalink support, off-board and third-party sensors

– and may be supported by other systems countering opposition sensors, including surface and airborne radars

– and/or can operate with stealth including secure LPE communications and datalinks

As a consequence of the above, interoperability becomes important, as third parties may be providing target information, datalinks, tankers and logistics. This drives towards

compatible secure communications, IFF, tanker/refuelling systems, in turn requiring

trusted information sharing protocols and procedures between coalition allies

or the alternative approach of a self-sufficient integrated air defence system (e.g. Russia, China, Sweden)

Engage and defeat the target

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Outside the opposition’s ability to engage effectively, and ideally inside your missile no escape zone

This drives you towards

 – long range missiles such as Meteor

– Third-party support, including targeting and datalink support

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Disengage at will

This is to allow you to either re-position for another engagement, or to withdraw

This favours

– Platforms with high energy manoeuvrability

– or all aspect stealth (generally not both high energy manoeuvrability and stealth, at least without compromise e.g in number of weapons carried)

– AESA radar to allow high-off boresight datalinks

– or third-party datalinks

Repeat as necessary

This requires the ability to

– carry enough weapons

– have good combat persistence

– and, often ignored, have sufficient availability and numbers to deliver a campaign rather than just an engagement

What does this imply for the top ten candidates ?

Situational awareness, weapons capability and combat persistence are probably more important than manoeuvre capability (g), although transonic and supersonic acceleration is helpful in creating opportunities to survive/win multiple engagements.

Situational awareness (SA) is vital because Beyond Visual Range (BVR) combat, by definition, precludes visual identification of opposing systems. Electronic systems must be used instead, and so on-board and off-board radars and electronic surveillance and protection measures become very important.

There is also the interaction between SA and stealth. If you have a stealthy airframe (F-22, F-35 for example) there are likely to be big benefits in the engaging fighters running in passive and using third-party sensors to set up the engagement. If you don’t do this your stealth advantage evaporates, as the opposition knows where you are.

If you are not very stealthy, and if your primary concern is to knock down enemy strike aircraft and bombers. what you want is a very long-range missile with a large no escape zone, like Meteor. This allows you to stand off outside the kill zone of the opposition.

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Another big issue is the effectiveness of any detection technologies against stealthy aircraft. Ground-based multi-static radars; lower frequency radars; AESA radars and IR Seeker Trackers will all have some capability. And who knows whether means exist of exploiting the LPE radars and comms. systems of stealthy aircraft. Once missiles are deployed, other detection opportunities may exist, including increases in signature as weapons are deployed; launch detection; detection of the missile plume etc.

Then you have the problem of numbers, closely connected to the number of BVR weapons carried, and the effectiveness of those weapons in a modern counter-measures environment. Not to mention tactics … and whether multiple engagements will be required.

Good things to have:

1) Situational Awareness

    Active Electronically-Scanned Array (AESA) radars are better than Passively Scanned Arrays; either of these is better than mechanically scanned radar

    Off-board sensors able to provide big picture good; better still if 3rd party targeting available.

2) Low observability

    But caution if this means less weapons; less platform performance; less persistence and need for 3rd party EW to avoid compromising LO by transmitting

3) High-capability weapons

    Long-range, high-speed, large No Escape Zone

    High resistance to countermeasures

    More than 2 BVR shots (ideally)

4) Sufficient combat fuel available

    To take advantage of the weapons load out

5) Good energy manoeuvrability

    To engage and dis-engage at will

    To rapidly accelerate to maximise weapon effectiveness

6) Good EW and countermeasures available

    To decrease opposition situational awareness and increase survivability.

Scenarios and broader requirements

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One of the key problems to be addressed is ‘what is the scenario?’ And are other attributes also required?

What about considering 2 different views of BVR combat – Air Superiority, where the battle is taken to the opposition, and Air Defence, where the focus is on deterring and preventing incursion.

Starting with Air Defence, let’s suppose you have a small-ish nation, where the Government does not have global dominance in its agenda. For such a nation, the key aim is deterrence, ensuring that any country wishing to invade or dominate you cannot easily do so. For such a nation, Gripen/Meteor might be the ultimate air defender, especially if you have a well-integrated air defence system and dispersed bases. Never being far from the border or a base, fuel volume and even weapons load don’t matter so much, because you’ll scoot back to your cave and re-arm/refuel. Having a big stick, however, is great, because you can defeat threats while keeping out of their missile range.

On the other hand, Air Defence of Russia drives you towards the MiG-31. You have to have a big, fast, aircraft because you can’t avoid the possibility of having to cover a fair distance at high speed to meet the threat. Being big means a big sensor and long-range weapons are available, and both are likely to be needed. You may be less concerned about signature and platform manoeuvrability because your ideal approach will be to stand back and hit bombers rather than engage fighters.

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Air Superiority, or perhaps Air Superiority and Offensive Counter Air is a bit of a different proposition. A key difference is that you are seeking to dominate outside your borders (or your host Nation’s borders when deployed elsewhere). It helps to be big, because you can carry a lot of fuel to allow you to be a penetrating escort to strike packages. But it also helps to be stealthy to reduce your vulnerability to ground-based systems and air defence aircraft. And it may help to be really agile – if you are going to need to disengage and re-engage, for example, or against the contingency you get forced into WVR combat.

So F-22 should be excellent at most of this, but might lack a bit in the way of combat persistence. As an OCA adjunct, able to use surface weapons to hit radars, and anti-air weapons to counter opposition Air Defence aircraft, F-35 would be excellent, but perhaps best with its pal in the F-22 nearby to ensure the F-35s could stay out of WVR.

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The Su-35 and Chinese derivatives would also be strong players here. These Su-27 developments have plenty of fuel, plenty of weapons and plenty of agility. In Air Superiority some of the older variants may be looking a bit dated, but their fuel capacity, general availability in significant numbers and weapons and EW capability mean that they could be quite challenging as escorts. I think the size is driven by the geographic challenge (like the MiG-31); once you’ve got the size, fuel weapons and agility the escort role is a natural. But signature differences would give an initial advantage to stealthier systems.

The strength of Rafale and Eurofighter is their ability to take different weapons loads so they can swing between the Air Superiority role at the start of a conflict (particularly once Meteor and AESA come along) and the OCA/strike role with an Air Defence capability once Air Superiority is established.

I’d expect China to be doing dome different things with the J-20. With a hypothetical really long-range anti-air weapon, this relatively stealthy platform could force essential support assets such as tankers and AEW platforms to stand back, reducing situational awareness and combat persistence for opposition aircraft. It might also be a deterrent to maritime operations if an air-surface strike weapon were to be available. Perhaps the J-20 should be thought of as a stealthy MiG-31, aimed at large area airspace denial rather than air superiority per se.

Broader requirements may also arise, particularly given the interplay between National aspirations, geography and budget. It is only the largest economic powerhouses with global aspirations that can afford optimised specialist solutions for Strategic Strike, Tactical Strike, Air Superiority and Air Defence.

As an example, due to its perceived role in regional security, the UK is looking to mush of its future air capability being delivered by a mix of Typhoon and JSF. Strategic strike would be delivered by other systems such as cruise missiles, and it appears Typhoon will swing between Air Superiority and Strike roles as required, while JSF provides a stealthy strike capability.

Making an Assessment

So, how to go about defining a Top Ten? A decision needs to be made about whether the Top Ten focuses solely on Air Superiority, or whether the flexibility of role, which may suit many Nations economically, is an additional measure. Further, where do the specialist Air Defence aircraft like MiG-31 and Gripen fit in? If the somewhat platform focussed approach of the 2017 list is followed these should do well, as with a long-range weapon either could be a very effective deterrent against a threat strike package.

aGripen-JAS-39C-MS20-matric-262-foto-Saab (1)

A Governmental approach to ranking these systems would be reliant on extensive system modelling, intelligence data, consideration of whole life costs and so on. Even them, great care would be required to ensure the modelling represented like with like – for example matching projected future capabilities against realistic projected threat capability rather than current capability.

None of these techniques are available to me, and if they were, I could not report the outcome! Instead the assessments below are judgement-based against various roles for which the candidate aircraft might be used.

Air superiority:

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1: F-22

2: Typhoon and Rafale (once Meteor and AESA are integrated)

3: F-15 and Su-35 [I’d need to know more about these systems to separate them] 

4. J-11, Su-30

Air Defence:

Rafale-Typhoon

1: F-22 (but should be doing Air Superiority)

2: Gripen and MiG-31 – noting a limitation to Defence of the homeland 

3: Typhoon and Rafale (with or without Meteor, but would be better with Meteor and would then place above Gripen)

4: F-15, Su-35, J-11, F-35 (unsure about where to place F-35; its lack of energy manoeuvrability and low number of long-range weapons is offset by stealth)

5: J-20 (likely to improve as system matures)

6: Su-30/ F-18E/F

Escort

1: F-22 (but should be doing Air Superiority)

2: Su-35/J-11/Su-30 (Primarily because of fuel capacity)

3: F-35 (self-escort role)

4: Typhoon/Rafale (with or without Meteor, but with Meteor would be better)

 Offensive Counter Air/Strike

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1: JSF (stealth, fuel)

2: Swing-role Typhoon and Rafale

3: J-20 as specialist AEW and tanker killer, and threat to maritime systems 

4: F-18E/F

5: F-16

This excludes specific strike systems such as F-15E, Su-34

Taken overall, it depends what you are looking for. The best out-and-out BVR fighter is the F-22, and it would be good for Air Defence as well.

A champion all-round capability for a non-US, Western nation, would be Typhoon or Rafale plus JSF. For Russia or China, Su-35 plus MiG-31 or J-20 plus J-11, plus specialist strike aircraft

If your focus is only on defence, then F-22, Gripen, MiG-31 and perhaps J-20 are all strong.

If your budget is limited to one combat aircraft type and your geography is limited, Gripen would be excellent. If you have a large geographic area to manage Su-35, or F-35 with tanker support.

Jim’s opinions and observations will be used in the compilation of the top 10 BVR fighters of 2018 coming very soon to hushkit.net

 

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The 10 Worst French Aircraft

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When compiling this list of terrible French aircraft we ran up against an unexpected problem: France hasn’t made many terrible aeroplanes. In creating features on the worst British, American and Soviet aircraft (reminds me, we should do German) the shortlist had to be (Frank) whittled down from thirty apiece, but here we had to work a little harder. France certainly made some mediocre aeroplanes, and some flawed designs, though few compete with some of the truly nightmarish offerings of the 20th Century’s other great aviation nations. Don’t worry though, we found a bunch of wonderfully weird French losers. Light up a Gitanes, stick Gainsbourg on the stereo and prepare to meet the ten worst French aircraft. 

 

10. Blériot 125 ‘Verne Baby Verne’ 

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After flying across the channel in his excellent Type XI monoplane, Louis Blériot spent the whole of the rest of his life trying to detract credibility from himself and his achievement. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the series of large aircraft his company built throughout the 1920s. Seemingly engaged in a competition with himself to produce the aircraft most resembling an illustration from a Jules Verne novel, Blériot produced a series of unsuccessful bombers and airliners whose outlandish appearance were in direct proportion to their operational mediocrity and chief among these incredible duds was the 125. In October 1927 Blériot saw Fritz Lang’s seminal film ‘Metropolis’ and, taking the idea that life imitates art at glaringly face value, set about building an airliner to encapsulate the science fiction aesthetic he had so enjoyed on that autumn night at the Gaumont Palace cinema, Montparnasse. This, though almost undoubtedly untrue, is the only way to explain the appearance of the Blériot 125 when, in 1930, it emerged from the chrysalis of its hangar like a fantastical butterfly from a daring Art Deco future. Regrettably, an airliner carrying its passengers in twin fuselages resembling railway carriages whilst housing its engines and luckless pilots in a teeny car-shaped pod atop the single massive wing turned out not to be the way forward, as the complete and ongoing absence of aircraft of this configuration serves to prove on a daily basis. Even at the time people were confused, there are many contemporary references to the radical design of the aircraft but no mention anywhere of what possible advantage this configuration is supposed to confer.

The 10 sexiest French aircraft here

As it turned out, the Blériot 125 turned out to be underpowered and exhibited severe controllability issues and one can hardly be surprised given the encumbrance of those two draggy fuselages combined with the modest power available from its two Hispano-Suiza engines plus the sheer amount of aircraft optimistically expected to be directed about the sky by its two teeny tiny rudders. At least with the massive side area provided by its mighty fuselages, not to mention the engine/crew pod, the 125 must have possessed impressive directional stability. The problems ultimately proved insuperable and after three years of tinkering the 125 still wouldn’t fly properly and was ignominiously scrapped having never carried a fare paying passenger. To be fair to Blériot Aéronautique S.A. they did produce a few relatively acceptable designs, unremarkable and largely forgotten now but who cares? Blériot’s crazed failure from a beautiful alternative future that would never come to be remains far more entertaining.

9.Mignet HM.14 Pou du Ciel (Flying Flea) ‘Micro-lousy’

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Pauvre Henri Mignet. The tragic tale of the H.M.14 ‘Pou-de-Ciel’ (in English, literally ‘Louse of the Sky’) could so easily have been completely different. A mere six inches or so of wing overlap separated unprecedented success from tragic disaster. Mignet was a romantic figure, a radio engineer (though some sources claim he was a furniture maker, whatever) with a self-deprecating sense of humour, a fascination with flight, and a chronic inability to fly a conventional aircraft. The latter quality inspired him to try and develop a new type of aircraft which would be simple, easy and safe to fly. The Pou-de-Ciel would ultimately achieve two out of three of these qualities.

Furthermore this was to be an egalitarian aircraft, straightforward to construct and designed to be built at home in a four metre square room.

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In designing an aircraft easy for non-pilots to fly (“leave aviation to the aviators” he once quipped) Mignet’s aircraft was genuinely revolutionary. The Pou-de Ciel had no ailerons, lateral control deriving from the rudder and its interaction with the pivoting front wing. The only controls were the throttle and the stick, which operated the pivoting wing and rudder and flying the Pou proved easy and intuitive. Remarkably the aircraft was designed to be impossible to stall, if the front wing did enter a stall, the airflow from it over the rear wing forced the nose down slightly and the Pou automatically recovered. The future appeared bright for Mignet’s machine, especially after he and his wife flew their Pou-de-Ciel’s over the channel to Britain (where it was dubbed the Flying Flea) and there began a short-lived craze for building and flying Mignet’s creation. Unfortunately the phrase ‘short-lived’ would prove all too accurate in a rather more literal sense.

Between August 1935 and May 1936 seven H.M.14s were lost in inexplicable fatal accidents and the authorities in both France and the UK grounded all Flying Fleas. Wind tunnel tests were undertaken in both nations and it was discovered that the air flow from the pivoted front wing when pulled back, to point the aircraft up, increased lift from the rear wing, pointing the aircraft inexorably down: ironically the same effect that prevented a stall occurring and made the aircraft ‘safe’. If the Pou-de-Ciel entered a 15 degree dive, recovery was impossible and the luckless pilot was carried into the ground in the appropriately coffin-shaped fuselage and the French and British immediately banned the unfortunate aircraft. Mignet developed a successful fix for the suicidal tendency of his creation with creditable speed (basically moving the rear wing back the afore-mentioned six inches) but neither his own nor his Flea’s reputation ever fully recovered (though many modified variants of the basic design have since been constructed). A curious aside of this sorry tale is that, because none were flown after 1936, many original H.M.14s survive to the present day, so it is likely that you won’t have to travel far if you want to have a look at the deadly Sky Louse in the flesh.

8. Dassault Balzac/Mirage III-V ‘Harrier Carrefour’

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As F-4s and MiG-21s poured off production lines in their thousands, aircraft designers looked for unconventional ways to kill test pilots, spend billions and make aircraft that nobody wanted – the best solution to this was the vertical take-off & landing fighter. When NATO issued Basic Military Requirement No. 3 in the early 1960s aircraft manufacturers swarmed around like wasps to ice cream. NATO wanted a common supersonic fighter capable of vertical take off and landing. If World War III kicked off, the type would be based in austere locations away from known airfields, and drop retaliatory tactical nukes on the invading Soviet hordes. The fact that at the time of the brief there wasn’t even a subsonic jet VTOL fighter didn’t stop this ambitious concept. Anyone who was anyone in fighter design submitted a proposal; Dassault submitted a concept based on the Mirage III. Vertical propulsion would be provided by eight small lift jets embedded in the fuselage. Lift jets, it was hoped, meant vertical flight without the perils of tail-sitting and without the limitations of (inevitably non-afterburning) vectored thrust. The planned fighter, the III-V was to be large (around the length of a Super Hornet), but a smaller testbed – the Balzac –  was modified from a Mirage III prototype. One lethal crash later many were questioning the sense of the project. It had many problems, including gross instability, stall-inducing exhaust re-ingestion and debris-sucking, a troublesome main engine and underpowered lift engines. Even if all of these were solved (and some were in its later big brother the Mirage III-V) there were the still the unsolvable issues of the terrible payload, terrible range (thanks to the Gainsbourgesque thirst of the lift-jets in the hover and their taking up most of the internal space where fuel tanks could have been located) and horrendous maintenance requirements of multiple engines. When the large Mirage III-V crashed in 1966, it was time to knock the whole thing on the head. Still at least, the Mirage III-V grabbed the absolute speed record for a VTOL aircraft at Mach 2.03,  a record unlikely to ever be surpassed (incidentally, the Mirage G.8 still holds the European speed record at Mach 2.34).

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The Balzac was not named for the French writer Honoré de Balzac, but after the phone number (BALZAC 001) of a famous Parisian movie advertising agency, following the decision that, the first aircraft would be given the unimaginative designation ‘001’.

NATO never managed to get its shit together and mass order a single fighter type, despite the huge cost savings inherent in such a scheme.

(By the way, Britain’s entry, the P.1154 won the contest).

7. Airbus Helicopters Tigre ‘HAPless in Seattle’ 

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While the Opel Tigra car, developed by Germany, France and Spain, is a huge success, its rotary-craft (almost) namesake (created by the same nations) has proved a huge disappointment. It’s a bit of push to blame the Tigre purely on France, but as it’s now under the Airbus Helicopters label (headquarters at Marseille Provence Airport), it’s fair game. To be fair, Spain and Germany, must shoulder some of the responsibility for what has been described as ‘a Ford attack helicopter at Lamborghini prices‘. Development was very slow, the requirement was issued in 1984 yet the type didn’t enter service until 2003 (even then it couldn’t do much).  Integration of weapons systems proved slow and VERY expensive. Only one export customer bought the Tigre (or Tiger as other nations know it), the Australian Army. The first two helicopters were delivered to Australia in 2004. Full operating capability was planned for 2011, in reality it didn’t happen until 2016. In 2012, after multiple incidents with cockpit fumes that endangered aircrew, Australian pilots refused to fly the Tiger until all safety concerns were resolved.  In 2016, an Australian Defence White Paper announced that the Tiger helicopters would be replaced with other armed reconnaissance aircraft in the mid 2020s – hardly a long life for such an expensive acquisition (the US Army have flown Apaches since 1986, and in updated form the type remains in production today).  Issues cited by the Australian Paper included the shipping time of sending parts across the world for repair, a lack of commonality with other Tiger variants and the high maintenance cost of the engines. In 2013 prices a French HAD cost US$49m a pop (the 2014 unit price of the far, far more capable AH-64E was US$35.5M). It’s hard to know how they got it so wrong as France is great at building helicopters and their military equipment also tends to be first-rate. Perhaps the difficulty of the task was underestimated- or the failure of the partners to agree on a single variant is to blame, whatever the reason, it ended up as a very costly way to not buy Apaches.

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6. Nieuport-Delage NiD 37 Type CourseAprès moi le Délage’ 

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The French philosopher Michel Foucault was sceptical of absolute ideas. Perhaps Foucault would have approved of the ‘sesquiplanes’ designed by Gustave Delage which denied such absolute notions as being either a monoplane or a biplane, instead opting to be ‘one-and-a-half- planes’. These made great fighters in World War One, so Delage kept going with the concept for his post-war racers. He flirted with pure biplanes with the  Nieuport-Delage NiD 29V which smashed the world speed record in 1920 at an impressive 194.4 mph, but returned to his 1½ obsession with the Nieuport-Delage Sesquiplane. The following year the new aircraft bettered the ’29V by clocking 205.23 mph (a speed cars would only take seven years to equal, with Campbell’s Bluebird). At the Coupe Deutsch race this same racer crashed for reasons unclear (perhaps wing flutter or maybe a birdstrike), in the capable hands of Sadi Lecointe . In 1922 Delage came out with an even faster Sesquiplane, the NiD 37 Type Course (racing type, as opposed to the Type Chasse fighter). The ’37 looked, and was, weird: it had a broad aile inférieure (the wing-like shoe for the main landing gear or half-wing that defines the sesquiplane), minute wings and a sleek streamlined fuselage that resembled a bomb painted red and white (to add to its eccentric appearance, the radiator hung under the nose in a ‘lobster-pot’). On the day of the first flight attempt the test pilot (again the heroic Sadi Lecointe) sat astride the engine (with the pedals attached to the back of the 407 hp motor) ready for the type’s first flight. At full throttle the machine raced across the airfield displaying no intention whatsoever to leave the ground. Lecointe tried repeatedly to coax the reluctant machine into the air. He gave up when the carburettor burst into flames and burnt his feet.

5. Simplex-Arnoux (1922) Race with the devil’

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A aircraft seemingly designed to test an atheist’s resolve.

René Arnoux had pioneered tailless flying wings, designing his first as early as 1909. When he put his mind to creating the fastest possible racer he retained his disdain for the tail, seeing a potential weight and drag saving. The racer, which was powered by the 320 hp Hispano-Suiza, was built to win the Coupe-Deutsch race of 1922. It was to be flown by the national hero Georges Madon, a fighter ace in the First World War. The resulting aircraft, the Simplex-Arnoux, was tiny- the fuselage being essentially an aerodynamic fairing that covered the engine – and lethal. Interwar racing pilots were used to limited views from the cockpit and vicious handling characteristics, but even by these standards the Simplex-Arnoux was a nasty aeroplane. The enormously broad-chorded wing obscured the view down, the barrel radiator obscured the view ahead (and blasted the unfortunate pilot with scorching hot air). It had also had appalling control authority as Madon found on a pre-race trial flight. The Simplex-Arnoux was too much to handle, even for a pilot with 41 confirmed victories and 64 probables, and the resultant crash caused Madon severe injuries.

 

4. Antoinette ‘Monobloc’ ‘Ian Dury & The Monobloc-heads’

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In the very early days of aviation the ‘Antoinette’ monoplane was massively successful, a supremely elegant machine when compared to the Wrights, Farmans and Voisins that were its contemporaries. At its heart was the world’s first V-8 engine, patented by Léon Levavasseur, intended for speedboats, and named Antoinette after the daughter of his financier Jules Gastimbide. And what an engine it was, boasting (for its time) exceptional smoothness and refinement, its power to weight ratio was not surpassed for 25 years and it is hardly surprising that early aviation pioneers beat a path to Levavasseur’s door to obtain an example of his brilliant engine. Alberto Santos-Dumont’s 14-bis made the first aircraft flight in Europe and was powered by an Antoinette, Samuel Cody made the first flight in a British built aircraft with an Antoinette engine, and an Antoinette powered Paul Cornu’s helicopter, the first to leave the ground, to name but three. When Levavasseur branched into building complete aircraft around his engine the future looked bright indeed, especially when famed Anglo-French pilot Hubert Latham started to set altitude and distance records in them. The company helped set up a flying school (incidentally training, amongst others, the first female pilot to fly combat missions, Marie Marvingt) and developed the world’s first flight simulator. Antoinette was on top of the world.

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Hubert Latham

Thus the utter and complete failure of the Antoinette Monobloc was tragic indeed. The aircraft was years ahead of its time, the world’s first cantilever monoplane wings, fully faired undercarriage in huge spats and a beautifully streamlined fuselage which completely enclosed the Antoinette engine. For 1911 this was futuristic indeed. Unfortunately it couldn’t fly. The Monobloc was (under)powered by the 50 hp V-8 engine that had propelled its immediate predecessor, the Antoinette VII which had weighed 590 kg and could hurtle to a maximum speed of 70 km/h. All the fascinating features of the Monobloc had pushed its weight up to 935 kg and 70 km/h (or indeed any speed at all) would remain an unattainable dream. Nonetheless Hubert Latham took it to the Concours Militaire at Rheims where he gamely demonstrated its utter inability to fly to the assembled military dignitaries of many nations.
Within a year the Antoinette company was liquidated.

3. Spad S.A ‘Free Spadicals’

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Have you ever stood inches in front of the whirling propeller of a frontline fighter from the First World War? Have you then made a small wood and canvas box to sit in, have someone bolt it to the front of said fighter, then got in it, with the whirling blades of the propeller maybe a foot away from your precious head, whilst an undertrained adolescent flies it (and more importantly you) up into the sky in which lurks hundreds of people in better aircraft who are literally trying to kill you? Of course you haven’t because you’re not an idiot. Yet that was exactly the fate of the observer of the SPAD S.A, an aircraft apparently designed to maim, kill, or, at best, terrify one of its occupants.

The design was a cruelly logical response to the problem of firing a machine gun through the airscrew arc of a conventional tractor aircraft. If you can’t shoot through the propeller, just attach the gun in front of the propeller – and the gunner to fire it. The idea was not unique either, the Royal Aircraft Factory in the UK built the experimental B.E.9 with the same layout, however the British machine was wisely discarded but the SPAD S.A. went into service.

It was not popular.

As well as the obvious inherent horror of the design the gunner’s perilous nacelle was prone to extreme vibration and on several occasions detached from the rest of the aircraft with lethal consequences. Communication between the crew was impossible, and in the event of the aircraft tipping onto its nose (a common occurrence at the time) the observer would be crushed. A British evaluation of the type came to the chillingly sardonic conclusion that “it would be expensive in observers if flown by indifferent pilots”. Contemporary French reports suggest the S.A was little used and many were offloaded onto the Russians as soon as possible. In Russian service the S.A was similarly unpopular and its only effect on Russian servicemen was to prove their Imperialist masters really did have it in for them and hasten the revolution. It also didn’t help that the acronym SPAD phonetically translates as ‘plummet’ in Russian.

2. Bloch 150 (early) ‘Bloch Party’ 

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By 1935 it was a fair bet that any new conventional aircraft built by an experienced design team would be able to fly. However every now and then a machine unable to leave the ground would emerge to challenge such assumptions and the Bloch M.B.150 fighter was just such an aircraft. Attempts to get the new fighter off the ground were abandoned in 1936. As well as being embarrassing, the ensuing delay as the aircraft was redesigned cost precious months and meant that, when the Bloch fighter was most desperately needed it was not available in sufficient numbers. It is probably an exaggeration to claim that the failure of the original M.B.150 to fly cost France victory in the air but it certainly didn’t help.

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Even once the Bloch had been developed into an aeroplane that could actually fly it wasn’t exactly a stellar performer. With its wonky nose (the engine was pointed slightly to the left to counteract airscrew torque), slab sided fuselage, apparently undersized wings, cumbersome tail unit and crudely massive gun barrels it could hardly be described as a looker either. It was, at least, incredibly strong and able to survive remarkable levels of combat damage, which was lucky given its lack of speed or agility and the M.B.150 and its slightly improved M.B.151 and 152 variants served valiantly but not particularly effectively throughout the Battle for France. A considerably better variant, the M.B.155 was just entering service as France capitulated and served in the Vichy air force but the final development, the M.B.157, boasted truly outstanding performance. Unfortunately the single example suffered the ignominy of only ever flying in German colours.
Ultimately Marcel Bloch changed his name and that of his company to Dassault consigning the embarrassment of the M.B.150 to another age, and, to the casual observer, another aircraft company.

1. Potez 630 and 631 (fighter variants)  ‘Le Bf 110′

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Had the Potez 630 and 631 fighters been able to avoid combat it would have been just another pre-war mediocrity hardly worthy of mention. Unfortunately for it and its crews it was committed to aerial combat against, amongst others, a far superior aircraft that it just happened to uncannily resemble.

During the 1930s most of the world’s major air forces flirted with the idea of twin-engined ‘heavy’ fighters. These shared a common concept that a larger fighter aircraft could effectively escort bombers deep into enemy territory, making up for any deficiency in agility deriving from their size, when compared with opposing single-engined fighters, with heavier firepower and speed. Aircraft such as the Westland Whirlwind and Kawasaki Ki-45 Toryu were all variations on this theme. Sadly the concept was flawed, World War Two era twin engine fighters were never a match for their single engine counterparts as the debacle of the Messerschmitt Bf 110 in the Battle of Britain serves to demonstrate. The Messerschmitt was an excellent aircraft (its rate of climb was greater than that of the Spitfire for example) yet it was unable to survive against determined fighter opposition, ultimately needing to be supplied with a fighter escort even though it was supposed to be an escort fighter. Imagine then how much worse it would have been if it hadn’t been such an excellent aircraft and one has a reasonable idea of the hopelessness of the Potez 630.

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The Potez 630 family was a diverse group of aircraft with pleasant flying characteristics comprising derivatives optimised for every conceivable role from Army co-operation to bombing, and in general it performed adequately if not spectacularly during the fighting over France and after. The fighter variant was, at least, well armed boasting two 20-mm cannon in a ventral gondola and two fixed machine guns (one firing backwards!) plus a machine gun on a flexible mount for the second crewman. However it never had sufficiently powerful engines to propel it to a decent speed and proved to be slower than many of the German bombers that it was supposed to be shooting down. Against modern fighters it had no chance at all. The afore-mentioned Messerschmitt 110 with an extra 750 hp on tap was a full 120 km/h faster and unfortunately for the Potez, from most angles it looked very similar indeed to the German fighter. It is not known how many ‘friendly-fire’ incidents resulted in losses but there are many documented instances. Pity the poor Potez pilot – strapped into an aircraft with inadequate performance, expected to chase down bombers that he is unable to catch, and shot at by friend and foe alike in invariably superior aircraft.

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To be fair to the French, the limitations of the Potez as a fighter were well known by 1939 but the fact was (in an annoyingly non-stereotypical act of engineering efficiency) it was so well designed for mass production that it was available in great numbers immediately, plus it was very cheap: despite being a fairly large twin-engined aircraft the Potez 630 could be built in fewer man-hours and for less money than a Morane-Saulnier 406, the commonest French single-engine fighter in 1940 (and also not that great a combat aircraft). Ultimately even the standard escape route for inadequate twin-engined fighters, night-fighting, provided no solace for the Potez. In the absence of any kind of guidance system the best it could do was fly around at night hoping to blunder into an enemy aircraft and it is fair to say that its service as a night fighter was effectively irrelevant. At least it was nice to fly and the three examples that somehow contrived to survive the conflict were used postwar as trainers for the reconstituted Armee de l’Air.

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Also check out: Top 11 cancelled French aircraft

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Have a look at 10 worst British military aircraftSu-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplane

DoisneauAvionPapa

s. Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 

The top fighter aircraft of 2017 (BVR combat)

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Picture credit: Jamie Hunter

To excel in Beyond Visual Range air combat a fighter must be well-armed and equipped with capable avionics. It must be able to fly high and fast to impart the maximum range to its missiles, allowing them to hit the enemy before he is even aware of their presence. The aircraft must give its crews sufficient situational awareness not to shoot their friends down, and be easy to operate so it can deploy its weapons quickly and accurately. The black magic of the aircraft’s electronic warfare suite can also come into its own, reducing the opponent’s situational awareness.

Hardware is generally less important than training and tactics — removing these human factors from the mix allows us to judge the most deadly long-range fighting machines currently in service. The exact ordering of this list is open to question, but all the types mentioned are extraordinarily potent killers. This list only includes currently active fighters (so no PAK FAs etc) and only includes weapons and sensors that are actually in service today. The Chengdu J-20 is not considered mature enough to make this list. 

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(This list is BVR only, for WVR see here)

10. Lockheed Martin F-16E/F

joint-place with 

Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet

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A great sensor suite, including a modern AESA and comprehensive defensive aids systems is combined with advanced weapons and a proven platform; a small radar cross section also helps. However, the type is let down by mediocre ‘high and fast’ performance, and fewer missiles and a smaller detection range than some of its larger rivals. With Conformal Fuel Tanks its agility is severely limited.

Armament for A2A mission: 4 x AIM-120C-7, 2 x AIM-9X (1 x 20-mm cannon).

Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet

dsc_3153 (1).jpgWell equipped with a great defensive system and excellent weapons the Super Hornet has much to offer. It is happiest at lower speeds and altitudes, making it a fearsome dogfighter, but is less capable at the BVR mission; a mediocre high-speed high-altitude performance disadvantage the ‘Rhino’ as does a pedestrian climb rate and poor acceleration at higher speeds. The touch screen cockpit has disadvantages, as switches and buttons can be felt ‘blind’ and do not require ‘heads-down’ use. The much-touted AN/APG-79 AESA radars introduced on Block II aircraft has proved unreliable and has enormous development problems. One scathing report said ‘ …operational testing does not demonstrate a statistically significant difference in mission accomplishment between F/A-18E/F aircraft equipped with AESA and those equipped with the legacy radar.’

Read an exclusive interview with a Super Hornet pilot here.

This list, which for the sake of brevity (largely) treats aircraft as isolated weapon systems, does not favour the Super Hornet: in reality, with support from E-2Ds and advanced other assets, US Navy Super Hornets would be extremely capable in the BVR arena against most adversaries.

Armament for A2A mission: Super Hornet (high drag ‘Christmas tree’) 12 x AIM-120, realistic = 6 x AIM-120C-7  + 2/4 AIM-9X ) (1 x 20-mm cannon)

9. Sukhoi Su-30MK

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The most capable official members of Sukhoi’s legacy ‘Flanker’ family are the export Su-30MKs. Agile and well-armed, they are formidable opponents. Armed with ten missiles the Su-30 has an impressive combat persistence and is able to fly remarkably long distance missions. The radar is a large, long-ranged PESA (featuring some elements of an AESA) and Indian aircraft carry particularly good Israeli jamming pods. The type has proved itself superior to both the RAF’s Tornado F.Mk 3 and USAF’s F-15C in exercises, though the degree of dominance over the F-15C is marginal to the point that superior training, tactics and C3 saw the US lord over the type in later exercises. The pilot workload is higher than in later Western designs, the engines demanding  to maintain and the vast airframe has a large radar cross section.

A2A armament: 6 x R-77, 4 x R-73 (1 x 30-mm cannon)

8. Shenyang J-11B

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The Chinese pirate version of the ‘Flanker’ features a reduced radar cross section and improved weapons and avionics. With the latest Type 1474 radar (with a 100 miles + range) and the highly-regarded PL-12 active radar AAM, it is an impressive fighter.

6 x PL-12, 4 x PL-10 (or R-73E) + ( 1 x 30-mm cannon)

7. Mikoyan MiG-31BM

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The MiG-31 is designed for maximum BVR performance. Against bombers and cruise missiles it is superbly capable (and would be ranked higher on this list), however as a defensive interceptor it is vulnerable to more agile and stealthier fighter opponents. The fastest modern fighter in the world, with a top speed of Mach 2.83, the MiG-31 offers some unique capabilities. Until the advent of Meteor-armed Gripens, no operational aircraft had a longer air-to-air weapon than the type’s huge R-33, which can engage targets well over 100 miles away. The recent K-74M, which is believed to be in limited operational service, is even more potent and may even have some advantages of Meteor.

Designed to hunt in packs of four or more aircraft the type can sweep vast swathes of airspace, sharing vital targeting information by data-link with other aircraft. The enormous PESA radar was the first ever fitted to a fighter. The type is marred by a mountainous radar cross section and abysmal agility at lower speeds. More on the MiG-31 here and here. 

4 x R-33, 2 x R-40TD (1 x 23-mm cannon)

6. Sukhoi Su-35 

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The Su-35 is considerably more capable than earlier ‘Flanker’ families and would pose a significant challenge to any ‘eurocanard’. Su-35S were deployed in Syria in 2016 to provide air cover for Russian forces engaged in anti-rebel/ISIL attacks. The Su-35 is even more powerful than the Su-30M series and boasts improved avionics and man-machine interface. More on the Su-35 can be found here. Teething problems encountered in Syria are now being rectified, though the type still lacks maturity.

A2A armament: 6 x R-77, 4 x R-73 (1 x 30-mm cannon)

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5. McDonnell Douglas F-15C (V) 3 Eagle/Boeing F-15SG/F-15SE

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Though the famously one-sided score sheet of the F-15 should be taken with a pinch of salt (Israeli air-to-air claims are often questionable to say the least), the F-15 has proved itself a tough, kickass fighter that can be depended on. It lacks the agility (certainly at lower speeds) of its Russian counterparts, but in its most advanced variants has an enormously capable radar in the APG-63(V)3. The F-15 remains the fastest Western fighter to have ever entered service, and is currently the fastest non-Russian frontline aircraft of any kind in the world. The type is cursed by a giant radar cross section, a massive infra-red signature and an inferior high altitude performance to a newer generation of fighters.

A2A armament: 6 x AIM-120C-7, 2 x AIM-9X (1 x 20-mm cannon)

4. Dassault Rafale

Joint with

 Eurofighter Typhoon 

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In 2018 the Rafale F3R will be in service with both AESA and Meteor — giving the Typhoon more than a run for its money. However, though testing has been completed with Meteor, Rafale does not yet carry it. The maturation of the Rafale’s AESA pushes the Rafale from its previous number 7 to a very respectable number 4. 

The Rafale is extremely agile, with one of the lowest radar cross sections of a ‘conventional’ aircraft and its defensive systems are generally considered superior to those of its arch-rival, the Typhoon (though the Typhoon’s have been considerably updated). It falls down in its main armament, the MICA, which is generally considered to have a lower maximum range than later model AMRAAMs. It has a little less poke than the Typhoon in terms of  thrust-to-weight ratio leading some potential customers in hot countries to demand an engine upgrade. It has yet to be integrated with a helmet cueing system in operational service.

A2A armament: 6 x MICA (possibly 8 if required, though this has not been seen operationally)  (one 30-mm cannon)

Eurofighter Typhoon

A high power-to-weight ratio, a large wing and a well designed cockpit put the Typhoon pilot in an advantageous position in a BVR engagement. Acceleration rates, climb rates (according to a German squadron leader it can out-climb a F-22) and agility at high speeds are exceptionally good. Pilot workload is very low compared to most rivals and the aircraft has proved reliable. The type will be the ‘last swinging disc in town’ as it will be among the last modern fighters to feature a mechanically scanned radar; the Captor radar may use an old fashioned technology but is still a highly-rated piece of equipment. The Typhoon has a smaller radar cross section than both the F-15 and Su-30 and superior high altitude performance to Rafale. Combat persistence is good and the AIM-132 ASRAAM of RAF aircraft are reported to have a notable BVR capability. On the recent Atlantic Trident exercise where the F-22 ‘fought’ alongside F-22s and F-35s it was praised for its defensive aids (which have undergone some updates).

A2A armament (RAF): 6 x AIM-120C-5, 2 x AIM-132 (1 x 27-mm cannon)

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3. Saab Gripen C/D

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In our original list from four years ago, the Gripen did not even make the top ten. Its dramatic jump to the number two position (see last year’s list here) was due to one reason: the entry into operational service (in April 2016) of the MBDA Meteor missile. The Gripen is the first fighter in the world to carry the long-delayed Meteor. The Meteor outranges every Western weapon, and thanks to its ramjet propulsion (an innovation for air-to-air missiles) it has a great deal of energy, even at the outer extremes of its flight profile, allowing it to chase maneuvering targets at extreme ranges. Many air forces have trained for years in tactics to counter AMRAAM, but few know much about how to respond to the vast No Escape Zone of Meteor. This combined with a two-way datalink (allowing assets other than the firer to communicate with the missile), the aircraft’s low radar signature, and the Gripen’s pilot’s superb situational awareness makes the small Swedish fighter a particularly nasty threat to potential enemies. The Gripen is not the fastest nor longest-legged fighter, nor is its radar particularly powerful. It would have to be used carefully, taking advantage of its advanced connectivity, to make the most of its formidable armament.

4 x MBDA Meteor + 2 x IRIS-T (1 x 27-mm cannon)

2. Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II

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The F-35A makes its debut on this list in the number two slot. Stealth and unparalleled situational awareness make a potent beyond visual fighter of the F-35A, despite its pedestrian kinematic performance. The F-35A has gained a formidable reputation in large-scale war-games; against conventional opponents the F-35 raking up a reported 17-1 simulated aerial victories. The F-35, if it is to stay in a stealthy configuration, has fewer missiles than its rivals. It also lacks the agility and high altitude performance of the F-22, Rafale or Typhoon.

4 x AIM-120C-5 (1 x 25-mm cannon)

1. Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor

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Undisputed king of beyond-visual range air combat is the F-22 Raptor. Its superbly stealthy design means it is likely to remain undetected to enemy fighters, calmly despatching its hapless opponents. The type’s excellent AESA radar is world class, and its ‘low-probability of interception’ operation enables to see without being seen. When high-altitude limitations are not in place (due to safety concerns) the type fights from a higher perch than F-15s and F-16s, and is more frequently supersonic. High and fast missile shots give its AMRAAMs far greater reach and allow the type to stay out harm’s way. Firing trials have been completed with the latest AMRAAM, the longer-ranged and more sophisticated AIM-120D, but this has yet to enter service. 

The F-22 is expensive, suffers from a poor radius of action for its size and has suffered a high attrition rate for a modern fighter. 

6 x AIM-120C-5 + 2 x AIM-9M (1 x 20-mm cannon)

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By Joe Coles &  Thomas Newdick (Airforces Monthly)

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Top 8 Mach 3 fighters

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As well as being a razor, mach 3 is a speed. It’s very fast. Flying at mach 3 produces oven-like skin temperatures and requires aircraft with exotic propulsion systems, and structures wrought from unusual metals that refuse to behave as well as aluminium. Despite these seemingly insurmountable challenges, several mach 3 fighters have been considered. Some have even flown.

 

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8. Mikoyan ‘MiG-41’

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The Russian MiG bureau has barely kept its head above water over the last 25 years, but according to some reports it is quietly working on a mach 4+ interceptor to replace the MiG-31, dubbed the ‘MiG-41’. You never know what to believe when it comes to Russian military aircraft, though it seems doubtful that Russia could afford such a programme if it couldn’t even fund the PAK FA by itself (it required reluctant Indian investment). If it is ever made, it will require a revolutionary form of propulsion – perhaps a modern variable-cycle interpretation of the J58 that powered the SR-71?

7. Dassault Mirage  (cancelled)

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For thirty years the French solution to anything was the Mirage. VTOL fighter? Try a Mirage. Swing-wing fighter? Try a Mirage. Nuclear medium bomber? Same again. So it’s perhaps no surprise to learn that several mach 3 Mirage concepts were studied. Butch intakes, new transparencies and huge engines would have given the MD 750 a formidable appearance. Generally the French air force prefers lighter fighters, and like many heavyweight Dassault concepts this failed to get funding.

6. North American XF-108 Rapier (cancelled)

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Of the slew of unflown mach 3 interceptor designs considered by the USAF in the 1950s, the North American XF-108 Rapier got the closest to being fully developed. If it had entered service it would have been exceptionally advanced: it was intended to carry the Hughes AN/ASG-18 radar, the first pulse-Doppler fighter radar set with a look-down/shoot-down capability (something that didn’t become common until the 1980s). It was also to be equipped with an infra-red search and tracking (IRST) system, and Hughes GAR-9 (missiles capable of destroying bombers over 100 miles away). Powered by two of the same engines as the equally ambitious XB-70 Valkyrie (and equipped with the same escape system), the F-108 would have been impressive but insanely expensive – in 1959 dollars the project would have cost four billion! The project was scrapped, which though a sane act, did deprive the world of what would have been the epitome of a kick-ass fighter. Its unfortunate name was temporarily carried by the F-22. 

5. General Dynamics/MD RF-4X Phantom II (cancelled)

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In the 1970s, the Israeli air force wanted a reconnaissance aircraft capable of carrying the extremely impressive HIAC-1 camera. The F-4 was considered, but the G-139 pod that contained the sensor was over 22 feet long and weighed over 4000 pounds – and the Phantom did not have the power to carry such a bulky store and remain fast and agile enough to survive in hostile airspace. One solution was to increase the power of the engines with water injection, something that had been done for various successful F-4 record attempts. This combined with new inlets, a new canopy and huge bolt-on water tanks promised a mouth-watering 150% increase in power. This would have allowed a startling top speed of mach 3.2 and a cruising speed of mach 2.7. This level of performance would have made the F-4X almost impossible to shoot-down with the technology then in service. The F-4X would also have been a formidable interceptor – something that threatened the F-15 development effort, causing the State Department to revoke an export licence for the RF-4X. Even with the increase in power, the Israeli air force was still worried about the huge amount of drag, but a solution came in the form of a slimmed-down camera installation in a specially elongated nose. This meant the interceptor radar had to be removed, which assuaged the State Department’s fears and the project was allowed to continue. However worries from the F-15 project community returned (as did worries about how safe the F-4X would have been to fly) and the US pulled out. Israel tried to go it alone but didn’t have enough money, so the mach 3 Phantom never flew. rf-4x_4

4. Republic XF-103 (cancelled)

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In 1949, the USAF issued the Weapon System WS-201A request for an advanced supersonic interceptor, which became better known as the ‘1954 interceptor’. The brief was demanding — perhaps too demanding. It called for an extremely fast all-weather interceptor with a sophisticated radar and air-to-air missile armament. A mach 3 top speed was sought, which would be over three times faster than the fastest contemporary fighter. One of the main stumbling blocks to achieving mach 3 was the fact that jet engines of the time simply weren’t up to the task. Enter Alexander Kartveli. Born Alexander Kartvelishvili in Tbilisi, Georgia, he was a hugely important designer, who worked on the potent P-47 Thunderbolt, the beautiful and impressive Republic XF-12 Rainbow, and the slightly shabby Gloster Javelin. To solve the propulsion problem he proposed using a Wright J67 turbojet (essentially a Bristol Olympus) supplemented by a RJ55-W-1 ramjet. Though the project was eventually cancelled in 1957 without ever flying, the design did inform the Republic RF-84F Thunderstreak and later F-105 Thunderchief (notably in the intake configuration)

3. Mikoyan MiG-25 (1964)

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Yes, yes – I can hear all you dorks shouting ‘the MiG-25 is limited to mach 2.83, and as low as 2.5 operationally’. But it can go mach 3. Famously an Egyptian one (admittedly the recce version) legged it across Israeli airspace at a whopping 3.2, ruining the engines according to legend. The MiG-25 was the only mach 3 capable fighter (yes, yes—fighter interceptor if you’re going to be a dick about it) to enter service. At speeds above mach 2.5 aluminium is not much good so an alternative was needed. Mikoyan adopted a radically different solution to Lockheed’s: instead of using titanium as the primary material (which was difficult to work with, expensive and mostly being shipped to the US) the MiG-25 used 80% nickel-steel alloy, 11% aluminium, and only 9% titanium. I seem to remember it also contains 5kg of gold. The British had experimented with steel for their utterly crap Bristol 188.

Despite its limitations (terrible agility, range and avionics), the MiG-25 has proved surprisingly capable in air-to-air combat, downing a brace of Iranian F-4s (and an F-5s). The most successful Iraqi MiG-25 pilot was Colonel Mohammed Rayyan, who was credited with 10 kills. In Desert Storm the type shot down a US F/A-18 Hornet, and even put up a spirited dogfight against the then invincible F-15.

2. Mikoyan MiG-31 (1975)

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The MiG-31 is the Volkswagen New Beetle to the MiG-25’s Volkswagen Beetle. Beefier and far technologically superior, the MiG-31 remains in service with the Russian air and space force today.

In 1986 six MiG-31s intercepted an SR-71 over the Barents Sea by performing a coordinated interception. It is rumoured that after this interception, no SR-71 flew a reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union.

Structurally, it’s a little different to the MiG-25, being 49% arc-welded nickel steel, 33% light metal alloy, 16% titanium and 2% composites. It is also an absolute beast, with a maximum take-off weight the same as a Boeing 737 airliner — or more than five MiG-21s! Armed with the longest range air-to-air weapon outside of Sweden and comfortably able to outdrag a Raptor, the MiG-31 remains in a league of its own.

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1. Lockheed YF-12 (1963)

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Not only did the YF-12 actually fly, it could also comfortably exceed mach 3. It was the largest and fastest fighter that ever flew, and smashed a load of speed and altitude world records. When the F-108 was cancelled in 1959, it seemed a waste to junk the advanced radar and missiles so someone had the bright idea to stick them on a top secret spyplane airframe then in development: the A-12 (which later evolved into the famous SR-71 Blackbird). Ironically, it was designed to shootdown Soviet bombers, yet was made from Russia-sourced titanium (it had been procured with an innocent-sounding cover story).President Johnson announced the existence of the YF-12 in 1964, allowing it to be used as a cover story for any observed test flights of the still-secret A-12/SR-71. Stealthy, supercruising and capable of flying at extremely high altitude, the YF-12 was in many ways the grandfather of the F-22 Raptor.

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