Modelling > Scenarios

Best Air Superiority Fighter, 1956-1968

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Logan Hartke:
  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.



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?

Logan Hartke:
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.



Jeffry Fontaine:
F-6A (F4D) Skyray[ seems to have been overlooked or ignored.

click on html or thumbnail image to view at Wikipedia

(Image source: Wikipedia > F-6A (F4D) Skyray[)

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


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