Author Topic: Best Air Superiority Fighter, 1956-1968  (Read 1922 times)

Offline Logan Hartke

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Best Air Superiority Fighter, 1956-1968
« on: January 09, 2018, 02:23:26 AM »
  Hey everyone,

Recently I've been exploring Cold War air combat and I'm having trouble coming to any satisfactory conclusions for the early Cold War period.

The scenario is fairly straightforward. What's the best land-based air superiority option for a medium-sized nation in the years 1956-1968?

Keep to mostly historical options and loadouts. I love the CF-105 Arrow, F5D Skylancer, and F11F-1F Super Tiger as much as anyone, but that's not really what I'm looking at. I'm sticking to in-service types and largely in-service configurations. No F-4B Phantom with an internal gun, thin-wing Javelin, or Hawker Hunter with refueling probe, for instance. Think of these options as complete weapon systems or weapon packages.

No specific threat environment, East/West alignment, or terrain to consider. Aerial refueling is a plus, but in no way a requirement. More range is a plus, but no specific figure to consider. These are not to be operated from a carrier, so that is a superfluous feature. Ground attack capability is a plus, but not the focus here. Fleet size would be around 100 aircraft. Why 1956-1968? Before the advent of the AIM-9B in 1956, it's a pretty simple evaluation of maneuverability, gun armament, and speed. After 1968, you have the F-4E Phantom, which gives you all the missiles you could want without sacrificing an internal gun, speed, or range. It had competition, but it really was a game-changer.

Air defense/superiority/dominance is really the only thing being evaluated here. Possible threats can be anything from B-47s/Tu-16s to F-4Bs/MiG-21s (and everything in between). Consider how your proposed pick would fare in aerial combat of that era. 1956 Suez, 1958 Taiwan Strait, 1964 Vietnam, 1965 Indo-Pakistan, 1967 Six-Day War, etc.

Cheers,

Logan

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Re: Best Air Superiority Fighter, 1956-1968
« Reply #1 on: January 09, 2018, 03:19:23 AM »
Probably largely comes down to how you define the "Air Superiority" role and what other support platforms you want to allow.  For instance, do you want something that also has a degree of multirole capability or are you going for the "not a pound for air-to-ground" style?  Looking at typical options you see:

Saab J-35 Draken
Convair F-102 Delta Dagger - more of interceptor?
Convair F-106 Delta Dart  - more of interceptor?
Dassault Mirage III
English Electric Lightning
Lockheed F-104 Starfighter
Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21
F-4 Phantom II - gun pod possible?
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Offline Logan Hartke

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Re: Best Air Superiority Fighter, 1956-1968
« Reply #2 on: January 09, 2018, 06:12:21 AM »
Hey Greg,

That matches my shortlist pretty well. I'm personally not putting much emphasis in the multi-role aspect of these aircraft. Once you clear the skies, you can bring in something that's better-suited for the role like a Hunter, Skyhawk, or even Skyraider. There's no prize for second-place in air dominance.



As for your list, the pre-F-4E Phantom family leaves me leery since that gun pod was not a great solution and I don't trust missiles of that era enough to rely on them. Otherwise, that would be my choice, yes. The same holds true for the F-102 and F-106 (even though I love the F-106). Similarly, the F-104A didn't get its M61 Vulcan sorted out until 1964, by which point you may as well wait until '68 with the F-4E. I'm also not convinced it's much better than alternatives like the Draken, MiG-21, or Lightning. The MiG-21 is purported to have spanked it in 1971, but claims in that conflict by either side require extensive investigation.

MiG-21 is great and very respectable, but I don't think was really better than the Mirage III, for instance, so I don't see a lot of reason to choose it over some of the Western options.

The Lightning has blinding performance, but I'm not sure that it had the in service dates, maturity, or agility to make up for that Achilles' heel of range. It was a great point-defence anti-bomber interceptor, but I'm really looking for a bit more versatility with a platform that can easily tangle with opposing fighters. I also have concerns about the Firestreak, though I admit that that I'm no expert on that missile and some of what I've read suggests that it may have been superior to the AIM-9B in many ways. That range, though...

I think the Mirage III is the safe—albeit boring—option. You can't really go wrong and it's got a proven service record with users across the globe all the way up to today. Why not pick it? For me, a few reasons. First of all, it really wasn't super-maneuverable. Much of the success achieved by the IAF in 1967 was by exploiting the differences in the Mirage III's handling compared to the MiG-21 rather than some inherent overall superiority. The delta wing meant that it bled speed quickly and it wasn't very agile at low speeds, either. And nearly all combat would be subsonic. Furthermore, the Mirage III was—to my knowledge—limited to just two AIM-9Bs compared to some of its contemporaries that could carry four of the missiles. I've read pretty negative things about that Cyrano radar and the R.530 (like almost all fighter radars and BVRAAMs of that era). Finally, the Atar engine was very thirsty with afterburner and you needed to carry tanks all the time, which further limits speed and handling.

So, what's that leave? Well, for me there are two main options. The obvious one is the Saab J 35 Draken. Arguably, I think it does everything the Mirage III does, but better. Better radar, better low speed handling, better payload (four Sidewinders vs. two), better range, etc. The main reason it wasn't more widely adopted was politics, from what I can determine.



The less obvious option (it didn't even make Greg's list) is actually the more proven and conservative option. That's the Vought F8U Crusader. The first variants entered service in 1957 and were equipped with the Sidewinder from the outset. It went through a steady improvement process until you got to the definitive F-8E. So, how is it worse than some of the other entrants? Well, no real BVR option (though I don't consider that to be much of an issue given the state of the pre-Sparrow BVRAAMs), poorer performance radar than things like the Draken or F-4 Phantom, pilot complaints about the four Sidewinder loadout making the F8U "sluggish", and those 20mm Colts that had feed mechanisms prone to jamming.

In what ways was it better? Well, it was the most proven entrant on this list after the icons like the Mirage III, MiG-21, and F-4 Phantom. It was almost certainly the most maneuverable supersonic fighter of that era, with anyone who went up against admitting that it didn't suffer at low speeds the way most of its contemporaries did. In short, it could outrun it any subsonic fighters it encountered and control the fight, but outmaneuver any supersonic fighters that gave up any energy in an engagement. It had internal guns (not the equal of the 30mm DEFA or ADEN, but better than nothing) and claimed about a quarter of its kills over Vietnam with them. It was also considered by the USN to be quite long-legged compared to most of its contemporaries, outlasting most of its opponents in DACT. This was all without external tanks and with a retractable refueling probe to boot. It could carry four Sidewinders and often operated in that configuration over Vietnam. It wasn't unbeatable by any means, but it was certainly formidable.

So, is there something I'm completely forgetting or discounting unfairly? Draken, Crusader, or other? Personally, those are the two I'm most torn over.

Cheers,

Logan

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Re: Best Air Superiority Fighter, 1956-1968
« Reply #3 on: January 09, 2018, 06:44:06 AM »
F-6A (F4D) Skyray[ seems to have been overlooked or ignored.

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Offline kitnut617

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Re: Best Air Superiority Fighter, 1956-1968
« Reply #4 on: January 09, 2018, 06:56:01 AM »
I've read that the EE Lightning was very maneuverable, besting most western fighters of the time and only got beaten when the F-16 came into service.  Read a report where the RAF tested it against a Spitfire, it was to test it's suitability's against Indonesian P-51's during that confrontation.

I was about to suggest the F8U as it did quite well against the Migs in Vietnam

Offline Logan Hartke

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Re: Best Air Superiority Fighter, 1956-1968
« Reply #5 on: January 09, 2018, 07:19:14 AM »
F-6A (F4D) Skyray seems to have been overlooked or ignored.

That's fair to assume, since the "Ford" often gets overlooked, but that's not the case here. I love the Skyray, and I think it's the prettiest fighter of the Cold War. It looks like something from a sci-fi film. My grandpa server on the USS Ranger during the late '50s and early '60s and I remember looking through his cruise books with him and thinking that it was the most beautiful plane in any of the pictures by a very wide margin. It's gorgeous, and one of my favorite fighters of all time.

It has four 20mm cannons, could carry four Sidewinders, had a decent range, good speed, incredible rate of climb, and legendary maneuverability. I absolutely love it.

All that having been said, it was not without its faults. While many of its pilots loved it, many others considered it to be a very, very tricky plane to fly in an era of persnickety jets. A few were kept on hand long after it had been retired from service purely to show test pilots just what it was like to fly an inherently unstable aircraft. Also, compared to all the supersonic aircraft on this list, the F4D could be left behind and evaded, being limited to subsonic level flight.

In a different world, had the Navy selected the F5D Skylancer instead of the F8U Crusader, I wouldn't be posing the question. That would be my choice until that advent of the F-4E...if not later. But, that's not really the scenario I'm working with here. I'm asking about "best" versus "favorite". The F4D may be my "favorite", but my judgement is not clouded enough that I consider it to the best, despite how sad it makes me to admit it.

Cheers,

Logan

Offline jcf

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Re: Best Air Superiority Fighter, 1956-1968
« Reply #6 on: January 09, 2018, 07:48:14 AM »
I've read that the EE Lightning was very maneuverable, besting most western fighters of the time and only got beaten when the F-16 came into service.  Read a report where the RAF tested it against a Spitfire, it was to test it's suitability's against Indonesian P-51's during that confrontation.


All well and good if the enemy comes to you.
Otherwise, maneuverability is moot if you constantly have to break-off because of nil fuel. ;D
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Offline elmayerle

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Re: Best Air Superiority Fighter, 1956-1968
« Reply #7 on: January 09, 2018, 09:52:52 AM »
I have to wonder how the handling and performance of the Crusader would have been affected if the J57 had been replaced by the J79 at some point?  The J79 is smaller and lighter for the same performance, but also runs hotter and might require some material changes in the engine bay.

It would be fascinating to see some DACT fights between Crusaders and Drakens.

Offline Rickshaw

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Re: Best Air Superiority Fighter, 1956-1968
« Reply #8 on: January 09, 2018, 10:43:39 AM »
The Mirage is IMO the standout machine in the list.   Despite what you claim, Logan, it was a very manoeuvrable aircraft as the RAAF showed whenever they flew against the US's F-5 Aggressors.   They invariably bested them by a wide margin.    It may have done that, despite all the limitations you list. BTW, the R.530 had interchangeable homing heads - IR and Semi-Active Radar homing.   The missile itself had problems, as you note but with an IR head most of the criticisms directed at its SARH version are eliminated.    The Cyrano radar was typical of radar of the period - the late 1950s-early 1960s.    When it worked, it worked well, when it didn't, it was a dog.

The later models of the Lightning overcame most of the criticisms about it's range, particularly when carrying the two big over-wing tanks.   What it lacked was a BVR missile - something you admit isn't a big bad thing.   It's two missiles were pretty unique - Firestreak because it was designed, back to front.  Redtop because it provided "improved" IR detection, being able to be fired outside of the rear envelope of it's target.  Both were complex and relatively slow to warm up and only had a limited time frame in which they were cold enough to sense a hot target.  What it really lacked was enough range without the tanks.  I'd replace the missiles with an optional two Sidewinders on each side.   It was the only fighter to successfully intercept the SR-71 on several occasions.

The F8 was a bit of a dog in many ways, particularly in it's underpowered early versions.   It did have a BVR missile - the AIM-9C but it was a bit of a dog and not widely used.   The gun feed was a real problem, causing frequent stoppages at the worst moments.

The Draken was politically held over by the Swedish Government(s) of the day.   It also suffered from initially no radar and then a bad radar until the bugs were worked out (which wasn't uncommon).  It was a good all rounder, like the Mirage III.   Both of those aircraft however lacked range.

I am surprised that you've not included the F-5 in your list.  It was cheap, easily available and quite a good fighter.  It could carry as many missiles as the others (four) and with some tinkering I don't doubt it could carry more on multiple launchers.   It's guns were reliable.   What it lacked was a good radar.    It's range was also a bit limited without tanks.   It was quite a good air-superiority fighter and that was why it excelled in the Aggressor role.
« Last Edit: January 09, 2018, 12:46:27 PM by Rickshaw »

Offline Old Wombat

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Re: Best Air Superiority Fighter, 1956-1968
« Reply #9 on: January 09, 2018, 12:11:45 PM »
... Despite what you claim, Jon, ...

[whisper]I think you mean "Logan", mate![/whisper]
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Offline Old Wombat

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Re: Best Air Superiority Fighter, 1956-1968
« Reply #10 on: January 09, 2018, 12:40:01 PM »
OK, now I know the A-4 isn't in the parameters of this discussion but I would like to point out that the RAAF Mirage III pilots were, from what I've been told (no documentary proof, sorry), less than willing to take on the RAN's A-4's in air-to-air combat.

For starters, with a centre-line fuel tank, the RAN's A-4's could carry 4 x AIM-9's. Apparently they had a nasty tendency to break the Mirages' missile lock &, when engaging in guns-on dog-fighting, they'd turn inside the Mirages, when they were trying to use their greater speed, & drag them into sub-sonic engagement, where they'd crawl all over them.

My point being, the Mirage had/has weaknesses & decent pilots in technically inferior aircraft could exploit them.
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Offline Rickshaw

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Re: Best Air Superiority Fighter, 1956-1968
« Reply #11 on: January 09, 2018, 12:46:46 PM »
... Despite what you claim, Jon, ...

[whisper]I think you mean "Logan", mate![/whisper]

Ooops!  Corrected.

Offline Volkodav

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Re: Best Air Superiority Fighter, 1956-1968
« Reply #12 on: January 09, 2018, 04:06:04 PM »
How about the F-11F / F-11 Tiger as opposed to the Super Tiger? 

I know it was slower than the other types mentioned (bar the Scooter and Skyray) and lacked a radar but was designed to be fitted with one and could easily have been re-engined with something more powerful as seem with the Super Tiger.

Offline M.A.D

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Re: Best Air Superiority Fighter, 1956-1968
« Reply #13 on: January 09, 2018, 07:42:57 PM »
I'm hearing what you are say 're the Mirage III Logan, but would the Dassault Avon Mirage IIIO, as built and test, but not taken up quantify within your selection criteria?

Or what about the lighter de-carrierized Vought (or was it LTV) F-8 Crusader - the V-1000 quantify within your selection  criteria? Oh, hang on, wasn't the V-1000 about 1970? :-\

Or am I off target?

M.A.D
« Last Edit: January 09, 2018, 08:07:41 PM by M.A.D »

Offline perttime

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Re: Best Air Superiority Fighter, 1956-1968
« Reply #14 on: January 09, 2018, 10:34:09 PM »
...
I am surprised that you've not included the F-5 in your list.  It was cheap, easily available and quite a good fighter.  It could carry as many missiles as the others (four) and with some tinkering I don't doubt it could carry more on multiple launchers.   It's guns were reliable.   What it lacked was a good radar.    It's range was also a bit limited without tanks.   It was quite a good air-superiority fighter and that was why it excelled in the Aggressor role.
The F-5 might lack top speed, compared with some other contenders. On the other hand, its size made it hard to detect, so they could more often take the opponent by surprise. Agility was good too.