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.
Robert Farley , a frequent contributor to TNI, is a Visiting Professor at the United States Army War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Image: Wikimedia Commons