An air superiority fighter is a type of fighter aircraft intended to enter and seize control of enemy airspace. Air superiority fighters are usually expensive aircraft, and procured in lesser numbers compared to smaller and generally more limited aircraft. The term was first used in 1966 to describe the VFAX/VFX F-14 Tomcat and later the McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) F-15 Eagle.
Evolution of the term
During World War II and through the Korean War, fighters were classified by their role: heavy fighter, interceptor, escort fighter, day fighter and so forth. Towards the end of the war, these types began to coalesce, as individual airframes became more capable and took on more roles. With the development of missiles in the 1950s that could destroy targets beyond visual range, design diverged between fighters optimized to fight in the Beyond Visual Range (BVR) regime, and fighters optimized to fight in the Within Visual Range (WVR) regime. In the United States, the proponents of BVR thought this regime would supersede WVR, with corresponding compromises in maneuverability and other performance characteristics in fighter aircraft which were necessary qualities for dogfighting, or WVR close-range combat. Such thinking even influenced the development of aircraft, such as the F-4 Phantom, which initially had no internal gun.
Lessons in combat
However, combat experience in Vietnam proved the BVR proponents wrong. Owing to restrictive rules of engagement and the failings of 1960s missile and radar technology, combat often devolved into a close-range dog-fight, one for which American fighters and pilots were unprepared. The lessons from this conflict spurred a rethinking of design priorities for fighter aircraft, in which TOPGUN, a school developed specifically to teach pilots the lessons of dogfighting, was created.
Air superiority fighters
This rethinking drove the Navy's VFAX/VFX of the 1960s and Air Force's FX (Fighter Experimental) concept of the 1970's, which resulted in the F-14, and later F-15. The VFX would not compromise interception for the air superiority role, a feat accomplished by Grumman grafting the AWG-9/Phoenix onto an agile airframe. The FX was to be a specialized air superiority fighter, one that sacrificed the ability to carry the Phoenix missile and the associated radar system which was able destroy up to six targets simultaneously at ranges of up to 100 miles in order to excel at only medium beyond visual and short visual range air superiority. It should be noted the F-14/Phoenix combination was directed at stopping Soviet bombers from entering within cruise missile range of a carrier group, and not as a dogfighting weapon.
The Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor will be the USAF's next generation air superiority fighter. It incorporates many advanced technologies like stealth, supersonic cruise without afterburner (supercruise), high maneuverability and thrust vectoring of its engines. Some early advertising material for the F-22 billed it as an "air dominance fighter." It will be one of the most expensive tactical combat aircraft ever produced.
The Sukhoi-30 MKI is the main air superiority fighter of the Indian Air Force. The Sukhoi-30 MKI is a successful outcome of collaboration between Sukhoi, HAL, French and Israeli avionics firms and DRDO to produce a customized Su-30 for the Indian Air Force. It is believed that this version of Su-30 is the most advanced of all Su-30 and Su-27 versions available to nations around the world. The Indian Air Force has about 80 of these aircraft in service and is to procure a total of 220.
The Boeing F-15 has been the USAF's premier air superiority fighter aircraft for nearly 30 years. The F-15 is in service with the USAF (F-15C), the Japanese Air Self Defence Force JASDF (F-15J), the Israeli Air Force (F-15I) and the Royal Saudi Air Force (F-15S). South Korea has recently selected the F-15K as its future air superiority fighter and the Republic of Singapore Air Force selected the F-15T in 2006 as its future air superiority fighter. The U.S. Air Force will keep 178 F-15C and 224 F-15E fighters in service past 2025 which will serve along side the F-22 Raptor.
The F-14 was the US Navy's primary air superiority fighter during its service life. The F-14 finally retired from frontline US Navy service in the second half of 2006. It was replaced by the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, an aircraft which was not originally intended to be the Navy's primary air superiority fighter because of its lack of the F-14's long range simultaneous target engagement capabilities which had been a requirement filled by Navy designs since the 1960s. New variants of the AIM-120 AMRAAM are being developed which extend its range out to the 100+ mile ranges of the AIM-54 Phoenix.
The French Air Force fields the Mirage 2000-5 as its air-superiority fighter. The new generation of European fighters currently entering service are all capable of the air superiority mission, as only one of many roles. They are the Saab Gripen, Dassault Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon.
The desirable features of an air superiority fighter, most of which were pioneered first by the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, are excellent maneuverability, high thrust-to-weight ratio, high performance radar with the ability to track multiple targets simultaneously, modern digital glass cockpits to reduce pilot workload, good visibility from the cockpit, armament consisting of fire-and-forget beyond visual range (BVR) and medium and short range agile, all-aspect air-to-air missiles, such as the AMRAAM and ASRAAM respectively.
In order to maximize their combat effectiveness,and stragitic air superiority fighters will usually operate under the control/co-ordination of an Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS) or Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft.