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Pictures: The U.S. Military’s 5 Best Fighters of All time

F-15EX Eagle II
The Air Force’s newest fighter, the F-15EX Eagle II, was revealed and named during a ceremony, April 7, 2021, at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The aircraft will be the first Air Force aircraft to be tested and fielded from beginning to end, through combined developmental and operational tests. (U.S. Air Force photo by Samuel King Jr.)

The U.S. aircraft industry is responsible for some of the most advanced fighter designs in the world, shattering a slew of performance records over the twentieth century and repeatedly setting new standards for battlefield performance.

As difficult as it is to distill so few choices from what is an expansive list of contenders, here are five of the best U.S. fighters.

McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II

F-4 Phantom

F-4 Phantom

Mockup of the proposed U.S. Navy McDonnell F3H-G/H. In 1953, McDonnell Aircraft began work on revising its F3H Demon fighter, seeking expanded capabilities and better performance. The company developed several projects including a variant powered by a Wright J67 engine, and variants powered by two Wright J65 engines, or two General Electric J79 engines. The J79-powered version promised a top speed of Mach 1.97. On 19 September 1953, McDonnell approached the United States Navy with a proposal for the Super Demon. Uniquely, the aircraft was to be modular — it could be fitted with one- or two-seat noses for different missions, with different nose cones to accommodate radar, photo cameras, four 20 mm cannon, or 56 FFAR unguided rockets in addition to the nine hardpoints under the wings and the fuselage. The Navy was sufficiently interested to order a full-scale mock-up of the F3H-G/H. It depicted the different sizes of the Wright J65 and General Electric J79 afterburners, with the J79 on the right side of the mockup and the J65 on the left. The further development led directly to the F4H Phantom II.

The F-4 had a rocky start as a naval, carrier-based strike fighter—nor is it the best-looking fighter by any stretch of the imagination—but it grew into a potent multi-purpose tool used by all three branches of the US military. The F-4 combined a heavy payload, blistering speed, and a versatile design concept to more than give competing Soviet fighters a run for their money. Despite its age, modified F-4’s continue to fly for several modern-day militaries across the world.

McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle

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An F-15E Strike Eagle from the 391st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, launches heat decoys Dec. 15 during a close-air-support mission over Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon)

Air Force Lasers

An F-15E Strike Eagle assigned to the 492nd Fighter Squadron performs a high-speed pass over RAF Lakenheath, England, April 10, 2019. The 492nd conducts routine training daily to ensure RAF Lakenheath brings unique air combat capabilities to the fight when called upon by U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Matthew Plew)

The F-15 was the next big design milestone in US military aviation, inheriting the F-4’s excellent thrust, potent air-to-air arsenal, and a no less capable radar, but adding a renewed focus on close-quarters maneuverability. The result was a fighter truly ahead of its time, handily outperforming some of its lesser MiG counterparts during the Lebanon War and Gulf War and setting a new bar for flagship fighter performance. To date, no fighter is arguably more iconic in US military aviation than the Falcon.

General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon

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U.S. Air Force Col. Mike Manning, the commander of the 169th Fighter Wing, and Col. David Meyer, the commander of the 169th Operations Group, both with the South Carolina Air National Guard, receive fuel from a KC-135R Stratotanker aircraft assigned to the 134th Air Refueling Wing, Tennessee Air National Guard while flying an F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft over Eastover, S.C., Nov. 12, 2013. The F-16 was flown back to South Carolina from temporary duty at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. (DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Caycee Watson, U.S. Air National Guard/Released).

As with the F-4, the F-16 was conceived as an air superiority fighter that gradually morphed into a multi-role aircraft. The F-16 was also a pioneer in avionics, boasting a fly-by-wire system that compensated for its intentionally unstable aerodynamic design to provide exceptional agility. A light, versatile fighter that’s vastly cheaper than the F-15, the Falcon is a rare addition to the US aircraft roster in that it manages to be both cost-efficient and well-suited for a wide array of combat roles.

Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor

F-35 Honeywell

Lockheed Martin F-22 “Raptor’s” assigned to the 90th Fighter Squadron, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, taxi to their parking location at the Royal Australian Air Force Base Amberley flightline for ‘Exercise Talisman Sabre 19’, July 9. TS19 provides effective and intense training to ensure U.S. Forces are combat ready, capable, interoperable, and deployable on short notice.

One of the world’s most advanced air superiority fighters, the F-22 Raptor boasts a weighty list of flagship features: two-dimensional thrust vectoring nozzles, supercruise capability, an cutting-edge avionics and communications package designed for integration with the F-35, compatibility with the latest (for its time) AIM-9X and AIM 120-D air-to-air missiles, and a raft of cutting-edge stealth features to drastically reduce radar cross-section (RCS). In fact, the F-22 might just be so far ahead of much of its competition that—as recently argued by The National Interest—Washington is seemingly reluctant to export a stealth air superiority fighter that advanced.

Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II

UAE F-35

Image Credit: Lockheed Martin.

Undoubtedly a controversial choice to round out this list, the F-35 program encountered no shortage of technical roadblocks and budget issues. As with the F-22, the F-35 is almost entirely unproven in combat— only time will tell how it fares on the battlefield. Nevertheless, there is little question that the F-35 is an amalgamation of some of the most advanced avionics, weapons targeting systems, and stealth features in the world. Once called a “quarterback” in the sky by one of its demonstration pilots, the F-35 uses its forward-looking sensor fusion concept to generate a dynamic picture of the battlefield, feeding live information to nearby friendly units. Its place in this list isn’t so much an endorsement of what it currently is, but a reflection of what it could become.

Written By

Mark Episkopos is a National Security expert focusing on Russia. He is a Senior National Security Reporter for The National Interest.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Richard

    July 31, 2021 at 7:26 pm

    Not a mention of the F-14?

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