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By Robert Farley, The National Interest
So what are the best and worst fighter aircraft of all time? What plane would you pick for a war in the sky?
On the surface, the questions seem easy to answer. One might look at which planes performed the best in combat as opposed to fighters that did not. Or, one could look at which planes had the best technology, took advantage of historical circumstances, or utilized a combination of the two.
Does America dominate the field of best fighters? What about Russia? Does China get any mentions? Does any one nation have more negative mentions? All good questions.
Robert Farley, one of the world’s best security experts, gives us his breakdown. Over two articles, combined for your reading pleasure written several years ago, provides a strong look at the contenders for best fighters, but also, the worst of the worst.
(First appeared in September 2016.)
Over the last century of military aviation, several fighters have earned the nickname “flying coffin.” Military aviation inherently pushes up against the limits of technology and human endurance, particularly where fighter and pursuit aviation is concerned. Flying a fighter is remarkably dangerous, even when no one is trying to shoot you down.
Engineering a capable fighter plane is also a struggle. Relatively small changes in engine, armament, and airframe design can transform a clunker into an elite fighting machine; many of the best fighters in history were initially viewed askance by their pilots. But elite status rarely lasts for long, especially in World War I and World War II. Fighters that dominated the sky in one year become “flying coffins” as technology and tactics move forward.
And thus the difference between a great fighter and a terrible fighter can be remarkably small. As with the previous list, the critical work is in determining the criteria. Fighters are national strategic assets, and must be evaluated as such:
· Did this aircraft fail at the tactical tasks that it was given? Did it perform poorly against its direct contemporaries?
· Did the fighter show up, or was it in the hangar when it was needed? Was it more of a danger to its pilots than to enemy fighters?
· Did it represent a misappropriation of national assets?
So what are the worst fighter aircraft of all time? For these purposes, we’ll be concentrating on fighters that enjoyed production runs of 500 or more aircraft (listed in parentheses); curiosities such as the XF-84H “Thunderscreech” need not apply.
Royal B.E.2 (3500)
Preparing aircraft before anyone had fought an air war was undoubtedly a struggle for pilots and engineers. The Royal B.E.2 was one of the first military aircraft put into serious industrial production, with a run of around 3500 aircraft. First flown in 1912, it remained in service until 1919, with its responsibilities steadily declining as better aircraft became available.
In a sense, the B.E.2 inspired the first generation of fighters by displaying all of the qualities that no one wanted in a fighter aircraft, including poor visibility, poor reliability, difficulty of control, slow speed, and weak armament. The advent of the Fokker Eindecker made the B.E.2 positively hazardous to fly. Refinements often hurt more than they helped, with the plane becoming steadily more dangerous and accident prone as grew heavier.
It’s tough to give a failing grade to a first effort. But the B.E.2’s difficulty and poor reliability, combined with the British decision to keep it in service well beyond its freshness date, earn it a spot on this list. Incidentally, the failure of the Royal Flying Corps to effectively substitute for the B.E.2 in a timely fashion provided much grist for early advocates of the Royal Air Force, the world’s first independent air force.
Brewster Buffalo (509)
A short, squat, and unattractive aircraft, the Buffalo entered service in the same year as the Mitsubishi A6M Zero and the Bf-109, two overwhelmingly superior aircraft. Intended to serve as both a land and carrier-borne fighter, the Buffalo saw its first combat in Finnish service, as several were transferred from the United States after the Winter War. Weight increases during the design process included provisions for heavier armament, extra fuel, and armor plating. Unfortunately, these left the airframe dreadfully underpowered, unable to keep up or maneuver with its best contemporaries. Although the Buffalos operated by the Finnish Air Force did well against the Soviets in the early days of the “continuation war,” Buffalo pilots serving in Commonwealth and Dutch air forces in Southeast Asia were massacred by Japanese fliers in Zeros and Oscars. To add to its least desirable characteristics, the Buffalo performed poorly in the high temperatures common in the tropics.
Marine Corps pilots referred to the Buffalo as—you guessed it—a “flying coffin” in the wake of the Battle of Midway, where the aircraft performed disastrously against the Japanese. It was quickly replaced in U.S. service by its far more effective counterpart, the Grumman F4F Wildcat.
Lavochkin-Gorbunov-Gudkov LaGG-3 (6528)
Military modernization is often about timing, and the Soviet Union of the 1930s rebuilt its military industries slightly too quickly, optimizing production around technologies that would fall a step behind foreign contemporaries. The LaGG-3, first flow in 1940 but developed from the LaGG-1, was the Soviet Air Forces premier fighter during the German invasion of 1941, and was such a disaster that, playing on the fighter’s acronym, pilots referred to it as “the varnished guaranteed coffin.”
Although it entered service five years after the Bf-109, the LaGG-3 was essentially hopeless in combat against its contemporary. It unfortunately combined lightweight wood construction with an underpowered engine, which meant that it struggled to gain tactical advantage against heavier German fighters, yet went to pieces when hit. Combined with desperate Soviet pilot training practices of the war, there’s little surprise as to how German and Finnish aviators gained such remarkably high totals against their Soviet opponents. Production of the LaGG-3 should have ended in 1942, but the agility of the Soviet military industrial complex being what it was, continued until 1944.
Century Series (F-101 (807), F-102 (1000), F-104 (2578), F-105 (833))
Picking a candidate from the Century series was a struggle. Most of the Century Series aircraft were developed while the Air Force was still dominated by the strategic bombing cadre, and interested primarily in the prospects of nuclear combat with the Soviet Union. Tactical Air Command tried to resolve this problem by making itself as “strategic” as possible, focusing on interceptors that could catch and kill Soviet bombers, and also on fighters heavy enough to deliver nuclear weapons. This left the fighters of the USAF poorly equipped to tangle with the tiny, maneuverable MiGs deployed by the PAVNAF.
The series was not a complete disaster; the F-100 was an adequate second generation fighter, the F-106 an entirely capable interceptor. The rest had the sort of troubles expected of a misaligned set of strategic and technological concepts. The McDonnell F-101 Voodoo was an interceptor converted into a fighter-bomber, a combination that made nearly no sense. It would mostly see service as a recon aircraft. The Convair F-102 Delta Dagger performed inadequately as both an interceptor and a fighter-bomber, briefly seeing combat in Vietnam before turning in its most notable service as a remote-control target drone.
The Lockheed F-104 Starfighter was fast, beautiful, and a death trap, earning the “flying coffin” nickname while suffering over thirty mishaps per 100000 flight hours (it was also known as the “Missile with a Man in It”). Over 50% of F-104s in Canadian service were lost in crashes, over 30% in German. The enormous Republic F-105 Thunderchief deserved better; designed as a nuclear bomber, it was ill-suited to the conventional bombing mission forced by the Vietnam War, and became easy prey to the Frescos, Fishbeds, and SA-2s.
The aircraft of the Century series had different builders, and were intended to perform different missions. However, they were procured in enormous quantities, and all suffered from problems associated with the same cause; the inability of the United States Air Force to conceptualize warfare outside of the strategic realm.
Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23 (5047)
The MiG-23 was supposed to be the Soviet answer to the big American fighters such as the F-4 and F-111, a powerful swing-wing fighter that could also perform attack and interception roles. And the Flogger surely was powerful.
But the Flogger was a beast to fly and to maintain. American “Red Eagle” pilots, tasked with determining the capabilities of Soviet aircraft, considered the Flogger a disaster waiting to happen. In 1984, Lieutenant General Robert M. Bond died flying a USAF operated Flogger. A relatively large aircraft, the Flogger also lacked many of the best qualities of its predecessors, including a small visual profile.
The MiG-23 was initially intended to fill out the air forces of the Warsaw Pact, but the Soviet clients generally preferred to keep their Fishbeds. Indeed, in export terms the MiG-23 was essentially a cheap loss-leader for the Soviet engine and technical support industries, as it proved remarkably difficult to safely keep in service. By design, engines burned out quickly, meaning that export customers who had fallen out of Soviet graces quickly lost the use of their fighters. The Flogger’s combat record, generally in Syrian, Iraqi, and Libyan service, has not been positive. It’s hardly surprising that the MiG-23 will almost certainly leave service before its predecessor, the MiG-21.
In terms of future members of this list, attention naturally falls on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which should exceed the 500 aircraft threshold. As I’ve argued before, it’s difficult to get a sense of the strategic value of the aircraft without a full perspective on its career. We won’t know whether the JSF is a deserving member of this list for quite some time. For one, it’s unlikely that the F-35 will suffer from anything approaching the accident rate of the fighters on this list. The JSF’s tremendous expense, however, undoubtedly makes it a long term candidate for inclusion.
Dishonorable Mention: General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark, McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, Messerschmidt Bf 110, Bolton-Paul Defiant, Fairey Fulmar, Sukhoi Su-7 Fitter.
What are the five greatest fighter aircraft of all time? Like the same question asked of tanks, cars, or rock and roll guitarists, the answer invariably depends on parameters. For example, there are few sets of consistent parameters that would include both the T-34 and the King Tiger among the greatest of all tanks. I know which one I’d like to be driving in a fight, but I also appreciate that this isn’t the most appropriate way to approach the question. Similarly, while I’d love to drive a Porsche 959 to work every morning, I’d be hesitant to list it ahead of the Toyota Corolla on a “best of” compilation.
Nations buy fighter aircraft to resolve national strategic problems, and the aircraft should accordingly be evaluated on their ability to solve or ameliorate these problems. Thus, the motivating question is this: how well did this aircraft help solve the strategic problems of the nations that built or bought it? This question leads to the following points of evaluation:
Fighting characteristics: How did this plane stack up against the competition, including not just other fighters but also bombers and ground installations?
Reliability: Could people count on this aircraft to fight when it needed to, or did it spend more time under repair than in the air?
Cost: What did the organization and the nation have to pay in terms of blood and treasure to make this aircraft fly?
These are the parameters; here are my answers:
In the early era of military aviation, technological innovation moved at such speed that state of the art aircraft became obsolete deathtraps within a year. Engineers in France, Britain, Germany and Italy worked constantly to outpace their competitors, producing new aircraft every year to throw into the fight. The development of operational tactics trailed technology, although the input of the best flyers played an important role in how designers put new aircraft together.
In this context, picking a dominant fighter from the era is difficult. Nevertheless, the Spad S.XIII stands out in terms of its fighting characteristics and ease of production. Based in significant part on the advice of French aviators such as Georges Guynemer, the XIII lacked the maneuverability of some of its contemporaries, but could outpace most of them and performed very well in either a climb or a dive. It was simple enough to produce that nearly 8,500 such aircraft eventually entered service. Significant early reliability problems were worked out by the end of the war, and in any case were overwhelmed by the XIII’s fighting ability.
The S.XIII filled out not only French fighter squadrons, but also the air services of Allied countries. American ace Eddie Rickenbacker scored twenty of his kills flying an XIII, many over the most advanced German fighters of the day, including the Fokker D.VII.
The Spad XIII helped the Allies hold the line during the Ludendorff Offensive, and controlled the skies above France during the counter-offensive. After the war, it remained in service in France, the United States, and a dozen other countries for several years. In an important sense, the Spad XIII set the post-war standard for what a pursuit aircraft needed to do.
Of course, it is not only air forces that fly fighter aircraft. The F6F Hellcat can’t compare with the Spitfire, the P-51, or the Bf 109 on many basic flight characteristics, although its ability to climb was first-rate. What the F6F could do, however, was reliably fly from aircraft carriers, and it rode point on the great, decisive U.S. Navy carrier offensive of World War II. Entering the war in September 1943, it won 75% of USN aerial victories in the Pacific. USN ace David McCampbell shot down nine Japanese aircraft in one day flying a Hellcat .The F6F was heavily armed, and could take considerably more battle damage than its contemporaries. Overall, the F6F claimed nearly 5,200 kills at a loss of 270 aircraft in aerial combat, including a 13:1 ratio against the Mitsubishi A6M Zero.
The USN carrier offensive of the latter part of World War II is probably the greatest single example of the use of decisive airpower in world history. Hellcats and their kin (the Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bomber and the Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bomber) destroyed the fighting power of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), cracked open Japan’s island empire, and exposed the Japanese homeland to devastating air attack and the threat of invasion.
In 1943, the United States needed a fighter robust enough to endure a campaign fought distant from most bases, yet fast and agile enough to defeat the best that the IJN could offer. Tough and reliable as a brick, the Hellcat fit that role. Put simply, the Honda Accord is, in its own way, a great car; the Honda Accords of the fighter world also deserve their day.
The Me 262 Schwalbe (Swallow, in English) failed to win the war for Germany, and couldn’t stop the Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO). Had German military authorities made the right decisions, however, it might at least have accomplished the second.
Known as the world’s first operational jet fighter, full-scale production of the Me 262 was delayed by resistance within the German government and the Luftwaffe to devoting resources to an experimental aircraft without a clear role. Early efforts to turn it into a fighter-bomber fell flat. As the need for a superlative interceptor become apparent, however, the Me 262 found its place. The Swallow proved devastating against American bomber formations, and could outrun American pursuit aircraft.
The Me 262 was hardly a perfect fighter: it lacked the maneuverability of the best American interceptors, and both American and British pilots developed tactics for managing the Swallow. Although production suffered from some early problems with engines, by the later stages of the conflict, manufacturing was sufficiently easy that the plane could be mass-produced in dispersed, underground facilities.
But had it come on line a bit earlier, the Me 262 might have torn the heart out of the CBO. The CBO in 1943 was a touch and go affair; dramatically higher bomber losses in 1943 could well have led Churchill and Roosevelt to scale back the production of four engine bombers in favor of additional tactical aircraft. Without the advantage of long-range escorts, American bombers would have proven easy prey for the German jet. Moreover, the Me 262 would have been far more effective without the constant worry of P-47s and P-51s strafing its airfields and tracking its landings.
Nazi Germany needed a game changer, a plane capable of making the price too high for the Allies to keep up the CBO. The Me 262 came onto the scene too late to solve that problem, but it’s hard to imagine any aircraft that could have come closer. Ironically, this might have accelerated Allied victory, as the Combined Bomber Offensive resulted in not only the destruction of urban Germany, but in the waste of substantial Allied resources. Win-win.
An odd choice for this list? The MiG-21 is known largely as fodder for the other great fighters of the Cold War, and for having an abysmal kill ratio. The Fishbed (in NATO terminology) has served as a convenient victim in Vietnam and in a variety of Middle Eastern wars, some of which it fought on both sides.
But… the MiG-21 is cheap, fast, maneuverable, has low maintenance requirements. It’s relatively easy to learn to fly, although not necessarily easy to learn how to fly well. Air forces continued to buy the MiG-21 for a long time. Counting the Chengdu J-7 variant, perhaps 13,000 MiG-21s have entered service around the world. In some sense, the Fishbed is the AK-47 (or the T-34, if you prefer) of the fighter world. Fifty countries have flown the MiG-21, and it has flown for fifty-five years. It continues to fly as a key part of twenty-six different air forces, including the Indian Air Force, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, the Vietnamese People’s Air Force, and the Romanian Air Force. Would anyone be surprised if the Fishbed and its variants are still flying in 2034?
The MiG-21 won plaudits from American aggressor pilots at Red Flag, who celebrated its speed and maneuverability, and played (through the contribution of North Vietnamese aces such as Nguyễn Văn Cốc ) an important role in redefining the requirements of air superiority in the United States. When flown well, it remains a dangerous foe.
Most of life is about just showing up, and since 1960 no fighter has shown up as consistently, and in as many places, as has the MiG-21. For countries needing a cheap option for claiming control of their national airspace, the MiG-21 has long solved problems, and will likely continue to serve in this role.
What to say about the F-15 Eagle? When it came into service in 1976, it was immediately recognized as the best fighter in the world. Today, it is arguably still the best all-around, cost-adjusted fighter, even if the Su-27 and F-22 have surpassed it in some ways. If one fighter in American history could take the name of the national symbol of the United States, how could it be anything other than the F-15?
The Eagle symbolizes the era of American hegemony, from the Vietnam hangover to the post-Cold War period of dominance. Designed in light of the lessons of Vietnam, at a time where tactical aviation was taking control of the US Air Force, the F-15 outperformed existing fighters and set a new standard for a modern air superiority aircraft. Despite repeated tests in combat, no F-15 has ever been lost to an aerial foe. The production line for the F-15 will run until at least 2019, and longer if Boeing can manage to sell anyone on the Silent Eagle.
In the wake of Vietnam, the United States needed an air superiority platform that could consistently defeat the best that the Soviet Union had to offer. The F-15 (eventually complemented by the F-16) provided this platform, and then some. After the end of the Cold War, the United States needed an airframe versatile enough to carry out the air superiority mission while also becoming an effective strike aircraft. Again, the F-15 solved the problem.
And it’s a plane that can land with one wing. Hard to beat that.
A Contest Based on Parameters
Again, this exercise depends entirely on decisions about the parameters. A different set of criteria of effectiveness would generate an entirely different list (although the F-15 would probably still be here; it’s invulnerable). Nevertheless, the basic elements of the argument are sound: weapons should be evaluated in terms of how they help achieve national objectives.
Honorable mentions include the North American Aviation F-86 Sabre, the Fokker D.VII, the Lockheed-Martin F-22 Raptor, the Messerschmitt Bf 109, the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, the Supermarine Spitfire, the North American Aviation P-51 Mustang, the McDonnell Douglas EA-18 Growler, the English Electric Lightning, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, the Sukhoi Su-27 “Flanker,” and the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon.
Image: Creative commons.