Here's What You Need to Know: The U.S. Air Force wants new fighters, and soon.
(This article first appeared in 2019.)
In September 2019, the Air Force Assistant Secretary for technology acquisitions Will Roper called for a new “Century Series” of jet fighters.
He was referring to six U.S. jet fighters rapidly introduced into service between 1954 and 1959 that brought the U.S. Air Force into an era of supersonic jet fighter operations. They later received “Century” appellation due to receiving the designations F-100 through F-106.
Roper wants a faster acquisition process that could churn out new warplanes every four years. That’s understandable. Today’s process is so ponderous that major programs like the F-35 stealth fighter take multiple decades to enter service, leading to outrageous cost overruns and program cancelations, and systems that no longer meet U.S. operational needs when they finally enter service.
But arguably the Century Series could serve as a case study of all the things that could go wrong with rapid development and acquisition.
Few lasted long as combat aircraft in U.S. Air Force service. Several suffered extremely high accident rates that killed hundreds of pilots. And most were designed to fulfill narrow role and/or relied on technologies that were rapidly made obsolete by changes in doctrine and the advent of superior multirole jets.
The rapid pace of fighter innovation was possible due to there being more jet fighter building companies, and costs being considerably cheaper—even when adjusted for inflation. For example, a hulking F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bomber cost $2.14 million in 1960 dollars, or $18 million in 2019 dollars. Modern successors like the F-15E and F-35A cost around $80 million.
Pentagon program requirements and safety standards were also much less strict seventy years ago. The 1950s-era Defense Department sometimes ordered hundreds of aircraft before they had been thoroughly tested. Frequently, early “A” model aircraft were effectively buggy prototypes flown (and crashed) by operational units until fixes were hastily implemented in later versions.
To be fair, the Century Series were impressive aircraft in their time, each setting new records and measurably advancing the technology of the era. Some, like the F-100 and F-105, rendered valuable combat service despite their flaws.
North American F-100 Super Sabre
As profiled here, the first American jet fighter capable of supersonic level flight integrated an afterburning J-57 engine to an enlarged F-86 Sabre airframe. But flaws in the F-100A model’s tail resulted in nearly 25 percent being lost in accident, and the Super Sabre was nearly withdrawn just a few years into service.
Revised models of the “Hun” went on to serve as nuclear fighter-bombers. But as a fighter, its lack of radar and air-to-air missile capability rapidly made it obsolete. Instead, a late mode of its predecessor the F-86, scored the first air-to-air kill using missiles in 1958.
Instead, the F-100 become a workhorse of ground-attack operations over South Vietnam. Despite proving to be an effective weapons and reconnaissance platform, it suffered over 193 losses to enemy fire.
But accidents claimed 900 of 2000 F-100s built, killing 324 Hun pilots. The F-100 was also widely exported abroad, and saw some combat with the French, Taiwanese and Turkish air forces.
Flaws: High accident rates, Rapidly surpassed by technology.
McDonnell F-101 Voodoo
The F-101 Voodoo was a remix of the earlier twin-engine XF-88 prototype for a canceled for a long-range fighter competition to escort strategic bombers. The supersonic F-101 was refashioned a long-range fighter bomber (F-101A and F-101C) and an interceptor armed with nuclear air-to-air missiles (F-101B). Canada maintained nuclear missile-armed CF-101s in service until 1985.
But only reconnaissance model Voodoos actually saw combat, recording valuable information with their nose-mounted cameras in over thirty-five thousand spy missions over Vietnam. The F-101s’s supersonic speed provided protection . . . to a point, as 32 of 166 RF-101Cs in service were shot down by enemy fire.
Perhaps the F-101’s greatest contribution was that McDonnell would retain its twin-engine, two-seat design in the more versatile F-4 Phantom, which carved out at a much longer-lasting legacy.
Flaws: Rapidly overtaken by technology
Convair F-102 Delta Dagger
The delta-winged F-102 was the Air Force’s first supersonic interceptor, designed to rapidly close with incoming enemy strategic bombers and destroy them from afar with unguided seventy-millimeter rockets and primitive, long-range air-to-air missiles. The initial YF-102 model’s aerodynamic flaws eventually required a major redesign.
The bomber interceptor had the misfortune of being deployed to Vietnam as an escort fighter battling other fighters, and ground attack plane. In air-to-air clashes, one F-102 was lost without scoring any kills. Lacking cannons or the ability to heft bombs, Delta Dagger pilots were left to fling their rockets and even air-to-air Falcon missiles at ground targets along the Ho Chi Minh trail instead.
The F-102 was exported to both Greece and Turkey—and both may have used delta-wing jets in combat against each other.
Flaws: Accident-prone, Overly Specialized, Rapidly surpassed by technology
Convair F-106 Delta Dart
The heavily upgraded F-102B was rechristened the F-106. It’s more powerful J-75 engine was nearly doubled speed to around Mach 2.3, making it the fastest single-engine jet fighter ever.
Though it never saw combat, the slick-looking Delta Dart was the finest dedicated interceptor produced by the United States. It was also the last, because by the time of its retirement in 1985 the United States was phasing in F-15 and F-16 multi-role fighters that were capable of performing the interceptor and air superiority role with vastly more advanced avionics compared to the F-106’s buggy MA-1 fire control system.
Flaws: Overly specialized, rapidly surpassed by technology
Lockheed F-104 Starfighter
Most would recognize the Starfighter as the speedy jet Chuck Yeager crashes in the movie The Right Stuff. That aptly encapsulates the operational career of the super-fast but accident-prone “rocket with a man in it.”
The F-104 was meant to be shorter-range counterpart to the F-102/F-106—though it benefited from the practical short-range Sidewinder missiles and a Vulcan cannon as its basic armament. Despite its blistering speed, the Air Force was never keen on, ordering only a small number and retiring combat variants in 1969.
Strangely, despite having the worst accident rate of the Century Series, improved F-104s were widely exported and license-built abroad. In Germany, 216 of the “Widowmakers,” as they were known, crashed killed 116 German pilots. Canada lost nearly half of its own fleet to accidents.
The F-104’s combat record was middling. U.S. Air Force dispatched a few F-104 squadrons to Vietnam in 1965 and 1967, where they escorted EC-121D radar planes and attacked ground targets. Thirteen were lost to crashes and enemy fire without scoring air-to-air kills. Pakistani and Taiwanese F-104s scored several air-to-air kills, but F-14s struggled in engagements with Indian MiG-21s.
In 1976, it was revealed the curious foreign enthusiasm for the F-104 might be explained by hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes Lockheed paid to high-ranking politicians in Western Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia.
Flaws: High accident rates, overly Specialized, foreign countries had to be bribed to buy it
Republic F-105 Thunderchief
The beastly F-105 fully earned its nickname “The Thud”—then the heaviest single-engine airplane ever at twenty-five tons, it could carry heavier bombloads than a four-engine B-17 bomber, and could still accelerate up to twice the speed of sound, or half that at low altitude
The Thud was a ground-skimming supersonic tactical nuclear bomber—a mission profile that pretty much assured its high accident rate. But instead of a nuclear war, they were dispatched on near daily raids over Hanoi—where 334 Thuds (40 percent of those built!) were shot down by MiGs, flak and surface-to-air missiles. As Thuds primarily deployed unguided bombs, they often struggled to inflict direct hits on point targets like bridges.
In 1970, the Thud was finally withdrawn from Vietnam. But the hulking Thunderchief does deserve its due: despite lacking maneuverability, Thud jocks were credited 27.5 MiG kills to twenty-two air-to-air losses over the course of the war, and special F-105F “Wild Weasel” equipped with jammers and anti-radar missiles helped pioneer anti-SAM tactics.
Flaws: High Combat Losses, Overly specialized
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
This article first appeared in 2019.
Image: F-106 Delta Dart / Wikimedia Commons