The National Interest magazine has been running a series of ‘top five’ articles on military hardware recently. Like all such lists, they’re contentious and largely a matter of opinion. But that’s half the fun, and it hasn’t stopped me taking a swipe at them on Twitter. This week it was suggested to me that I put my keyboard where my mouth is, so here’s my own ‘Top five fighter aircraft of all time’ in response to Robert Farley’s list.
First, the criteria. The aircraft have to have been game-changers, either by altering the course of important campaigns or by affecting the strategic calculus. And they have to have been produced in quantity. Performance isn’t a criterion, although it can certainly help an aircraft meet the other criteria. That’s why the modestly-performed but ‘in the right place at the right time’ Hawker Hurricane—by far the RAF’s numerically most important fighter during the Battle of Britain—is a contender.
WWI: Fokker D.VII
‘Best on field’ awards usually go to players on the winning side (for good reason), so there’s a temptation to apply a winner’s bias when looking for a WWI nominee. The Sopwith Triplane would probably be my allied choice on the grounds that it turned the air war on the western front when it was introduced. But it didn’t last long in service, partly because things were moving fast and partly because it was difficult to maintain. On balance I’m giving the nod to the Fokker D.VII, a well-performed aircraft built in very large numbers late in the war and impressive enough to be specifically mentioned in the armistice conditions, which required ‘surrender in good condition by the German Armies of … all D.7’s’.
WWII: Lockheed P-38 Lightning
I don’t mind the National Interest nomination of the Grumman Hellcat from WWII, and I like their description of it as the ‘Honda Accord of the sky’. But the Hellcat did most of its work after the darkest days of 1942, and had little impact in the European theatre. The P-38 Lightning, on the other hand, was a heavy long-range fighter that played an important role in establishing allied air superiority in the Pacific (as well as the sigint-enabled interception of General Yamamoto’s aircraft over Bougainville). The same qualities also allowed it to accompany allied bombers over Germany in 1943, allowing the strategically successful allied bomber offensive to ramp up before the more famous P-51 Mustang (also in the running for this award) came along. This will be the most disputed nomination.
Honorable WWII mentions: Almost too many to mention, as aviation became a core warfighting capability for the first time: Hurricane, Spitfire (in that order), Yak-3 and –9, Messerschmitt 109, Focke-Wulf 190, Mitsubishi Zero, P-47 Thunderbolt.
The 1950s: MiG-15
While in some ways a hybrid of a British jet engine and German WWII jet research, the appearance in the skies over Korea of the fast and heavily-armed swept-wing MiG-15 came as a nasty surprise to allied forces that entered the war with early straight-wing jets and WWII vintage piston-engined fighters. The USAF had to scramble to match it through the rapid deployment of the F-86 Sabre. The Sabre allowed the allies to take the fight to the MiG-15 and superior training and experience told in the end, but in one fell swoop it was clear that the Cold War wasn’t going to be a technological one-way street. (The aircraft equivalent of Sputnik 1.)
Honourable mention: F-86 Sabre
The 1960s: McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II
Inexplicably in the National Interest’s ‘dishonourable mention’ appendix to its Worst five fighter aircraft of all time list, this nomination alone makes my list better than theirs. The Phantom was a true joint strike fighter of its day, serving in large numbers with the US Air Force (which was initially reluctant), Navy and Marine Corps, as well as many other countries around the world. More than 5,000 were built, and although it was never going to win prizes for looks, the Phantom saw combat service in two major American wars (Vietnam and Gulf War I). It was a major factor in establishing Israeli air superiority in the 1960s and 70s and in maintaining Western air power well into the 1980s.
1980s and beyond: McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle
Taking over where the Phantom left off, the F-15 has been the vanguard of Western air power from the 1980s onwards. Most air-to-air combat ‘kills’ by American forces during that time have been by F-15s. Israeli F-15s also have a formidable air combat record. And when air-to-air combat isn’t required, the Strike-Eagle is an accomplished strike platform.
Honourable mentions: the F-16, which was the ‘low’ part of the high-low mix with the F-15. But at half the price of an F-15 it delivered well over half the capability.
Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability and director of research at ASPI. Image courtesy of AereiMilitari.org.