A fighter aircraft is a military aircraft designed primarily for air-to-air combat with the other aircraft. That is their main difference from bombers. It’s well known that fighters are small, fast, and maneuverable. That made me think it was probably only recently that these powerful death machines were invented. Well, I was wrong! Fighter jets have a long and interesting history. I confess that most of the technical descriptions were taken from Wikipedia, so don’t judge too harshly.
In the aviation community, jet fighters are classified by generations. Actually there are no official definitions of these generations, and they rather represent the different stages in the development of fighter design approaches, performance capabilities, and technological evolution. The timeframes associated with each generation are inexact and only indicate the general period during which fighter jets’ design philosophies and technology employment had a prevailing influence.
Now let’s get back to the very early history of fighter jets. Since World War II, achieving and maintaining air superiority has been a key component of victory in warfare. Still, the purchase, training, and maintenance of a fighter fleet is not the last priority in defense budgets. By the end of the war, turbojet engines were already beginning to replace piston engines as the means of propulsion, and increasingly sophisticated refinements to armament were already appearing. Early fighters were very small and lightly armed, predominantly all-metal monoplanes with wing-mounted batteries of cannons or machine guns.
Modern jet fighters are predominantly powered by one or two turbofan engines and equipped with a radar as the primary method of target acquisition. Armament consists primarily of air-to-air missiles (from as few as two to as many as eight or twelve), with a cannon as backup armament (typically between 20 and 30 mm in caliber). They can also have air-to-surface missiles and guided or unguided bombs.
Let’s take a look at the different generations of fighter jets and some of their representatives. The number of fighters in every generation is astonishing, and if you’d like to get more info, here comes the full list of fighter jets from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fighter_aircraft. I’m not sure that the list is full though, as it doesn’t include my favorite Harrier Jump Jet, a British-designed military jet aircraft capable of vertical / short takeoff and landing via thrust vectoring.
First generation subsonic jet fighters (mid-1940s to mid-1950s)
These are some of the very first fighter jets which entered production during the closing years of World War II as described above.
Germany: Me 262 ( the first operational jet fighter ever)
Russian: Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15
Second generation jet fighters (mid-1950s to early 1960s)
The development of second-generation fighters was shaped by technological breakthroughs, lessons learned from the aerial battles of the Korean War, and a focus on conducting operations in a nuclear warfare environment. Technological advances in aerodynamics, propulsion and aerospace building materials (primarily aluminum alloys) permitted designers to experiment with aeronautical innovations, such as swept wings, delta wings, and area-ruled fuselages. Widespread use of after-burning turbojet engines allowed these aircraft to break the sound barrier, and gave them the ability to sustain supersonic speeds in level flight — it became a common capability amongst fighters of this generation. Radar-guided (RF) missiles were introduced as well, but early examples proved unreliable.
France: Dassault Mirage III/5
USSR: Sukhoi Su-7 ‘Fitter-A’
UK: Gloster Javelin
UK: Supermarine Swift
USA: Grumman F-9 Cougar
USA: Convair F-106 Delta Dart
Third-generation jet fighters (early 1960s to circa 1970)
The third generation witnessed continued maturation of second-generation innovations, but it is most marked by renewed emphases on maneuverability and traditional ground-attack capabilities. Enhancements to improve the aerodynamic performance of third-generation fighters included flight control surfaces such as canards, powered slats, and blown flaps. A number of technologies would be tried for vertical / short takeoff and landing, but thrust vectoring would be successful on the Harrier jump jet.
France: Dassault Mirage F1
Japan: Mitsubishi F-1
USSR: Tupolev Tu-28 ‘Fiddler’
USA: McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II
Fourth generation jet fighters (circa 1970 to mid-1990s)
Fourth-generation fighters continued the trend towards multi-role configurations, and were equipped with increasingly-sophisticated avionics and weapon systems.
China: AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-kuo
USA: Grumman F-14 Tomcat
USSR: Sukhoi Su-33 ‘Flanker D’
4.5th generation jet fighters (1990s to 2005)
The end of the Cold War in 1991 led many governments to significantly decrease military spending as a “peace dividend.” Air force inventories were cut, and research and development programs intended to produce what was then anticipated to be the “fifth-generation” fighters.
Fifth generation jet fighters (2005 to the present)
Fifth generation jet fighters took serious hits; many programs were canceled during the first half of the 1990s, and those which survived were “stretched out.” The fifth generation was ushered in by the Lockheed Martin / Boeing F-22 Raptor in late 2005. Currently the cutting edge of fighter design, fifth-generation fighters are characterized as being designed from the start to operate in a network-centric combat environment and to feature extremely low, all-aspect, multi-spectral signatures employing advanced materials and shaping techniques.