Intense competition between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and an arms race in all major areas of their defence sectors from armour to ballistic missiles, saw both states contend to develop the most capable fighters and interceptors for air to air combat. Each viewed the other as a peer competitor against which an advantage in the air could never be guaranteed. While the USSR initially had a considerable advantage with the MiG-15 and more advanced MiG-17, the former which comfortably outperformed America’s top fighter the F-86 Sabre during the Korean War, the U.S. redoubled investments in military aviation in the war’s aftermath and by the early-mid 1960s has surpassed the USSR with the induction of the first third generation fighters such as the F-4E Phantom. The USSR for its part, as a result of a policy shift following the death of Marshal Josef Stalin, placed a low emphasis on its fighter and interceptor capabilities in the Korean War’s aftermath in the belief that superior nuclear weapons almost exclusively were key to victory. This led to a lag in Soviet capabilities which it would take over 25 years to fully make up when the country’s first fourth generation jets entered widespread service in the early 1980s. By the end of the Cold War both the Soviet Union and the United States were developing fifth generation fighter aircraft, though the conflict’s conclusion and USSR’s collapse in 1991 preceded the entry of these aircraft into service. Had the Cold War broken out into a hot war in the late 1980s, five air superiority fighters and interceptors with unique air to air combat capabilities would have been at the forefront of the war effort and played a central role in efforts to dominate the skies. The capabilities of the five most capable jets of the Cold War, in terms of their air to air combat performance, are shown below:
The last fighter of the Cold War, the F-14D ‘Super Tomcat’ entered service just months before the Soviet collapse and addressed several of the shortcomings of the original F-14A which had first been inducted into the U.S. Navy 17 years prior in 1974. The somewhat unreliable and underpowered Pratt & Whitney TF-30 engines were replaced with General Electronic F110-400 engines, increasing the twin engine aircraft’s afterburning thrust from 223kn to 268kn while addressing reliability issues which had plagued the older engine particularly in its earlier years. New engines not only made the aircraft more manoeuvrable, with a 61% increase in climb rate, but also provided additional endurance of one third. The fighter also integrated a full glass cockpit, new data links, new avionics, updated electronic warfare systems and a powerful new AN/APG-71 radar with a 740km detection range. The ‘Super Tomcat’ was one of very few Western jets of its time to integrate an infra red search and track system (IRST), possibly in anticipation of the induction of Soviet stealth fighters which it was well suited to locking on to. IRST allowed the Super Tomcat to operate without a radar signature.
The F-14D was the heaviest Western fighter developed, 55% heavier than its Air Force counterpart the F-15, and carried the most powerful sensor suite ever developed for air to air combat and a unique payload of AIM-54 Phoenix long range air to air missiles for unrivalled beyond visual range capabilities. The missile was the only one in U.S. service with active radar guidance and ‘fire and forget’ capabilities, and was the only one capable of reaching hypersonic speeds of Mach 5. It demonstrated a high degree of precision even against small fighter sized targets at extreme ranges, with well over twice the range of the AIM-7 and R-27 used by other fighters of its time at almost 200km. The missile was key to providing the less advanced Iranian F-14A Tomcats with a 160:3 air to air kill ratio against Soviet and French second and third generation jets in the Iran-Iraq war with 61 air to air kills using the Phoenix. While limited in its altitude to little over 15km, and with very high maintenance requirements and operational costs which led to its early retirement, the F-14D was the most powerful fighter in air to air combat of the Cold War. It combined the roles of fighter and interceptor with high manoeuvrability, excellent situational awareness, formidable speed and range and a very high performance armament unmatched for its time.
The first Soviet combat jet of the fourth generation, the MiG-31 Foxhound was designed as a dedicated interceptor particularly valued for the power of its groundbreaking Zaslon passive electronically scanned array radar. The Zaslon would remain the world’s only phased array radar built for air to air combat from the Foxhound’s entry into service in 1981, until the Japanese F-2 and American F-22 entered service in 2002 and 2005 respectively. The MiG-31’s sensors and engagement range comfortably exceeded the power of any fighter deployed by the U.S. Air Force, and gave the Foxhound a considerable edge, while its unrivalled altitude and speed allowed it to impart significant kinetic energy to its munitions making them much more dangerous. Dubbed ‘Super Foxbat’ in a report to Western intelligence by defecting Soviet pilot Viktor Belenko, the aircraft built on the strengths of its predecessor the MiG-25 with an approximately 15% percent heavier airframe which accommodated more powerful sensors, a 60% percent longer range and the integration of new R-33 long range air to air missiles. The aircraft was unrivalled in its altitude ceiling of of close to 24km, and was capable of engaging targets up to 120km away using earlier variants of the R-33 air to air missile – although this was later extended to 300km. The aircraft was also capable of deploying the shorter ranged R-40 missile with a massive 100kg payload, which made it extremely difficult to evade and proved highly effective in combat. By the late 1980s a much improved Foxhound variant, the MiG-31M, was in its late development stages and was expected to far surpass the original MiG-31, with its improved Zaslon-M radar later being integrated onto older MiG-31B airframes as part of the MiG-31BM/BMS upgrade package.
Entering service in 1985, the Su-27 Flanker was designed to go head to head with and outperform the U.S. Air Force’s F-15C Eagles which had proven to have an overwhelming advantage over older Vietnam War era Soviet fighters such as the MiG-21 and MiG-23. The Flanker was the third Soviet fourth generation combat jet introduced and the first designed for high end air superiority missions and carried a high payload of R-27 and R-73 air to air missiles and a very powerful and heavy a Phazotron N001 Myech coherent Pulse-Doppler radar. The R-73 was built for short range engagements and when acquire by NATO following the Soviet collapse it was found to have total superiority over all rival designs with its helmet cued high off-boresight capabilities allowing it to engage targets at very extreme angles.
The Su-27 was unrivalled in its manoeuvrability, and which gave it significant advantages both in visual range dogfighting and in beyond visual range combat, with the design optimised for evading enemy long range missiles such as the American AIM-54 and AIM-7. The fighter’s long range and high speed and altitude made it ideal for penetrating enemy air defences and claiming air superiority over enemy airspace, and it was intended to support bombers and Su-24 strike fighters over European skies for this purpose. The fighter’s development and its implications forced the United States to accelerate its fifth generation fighter program to counter the Flanker, while efforts were made to develop more capable munitions for the F-15C, namely the AIM-120 AMRAAM air to air missile, to compensate for its disadvantages in beyond visual range combat. An enhanced twin seat derivative of the Su-27, the Su-30, saw its first flight in 1989 but did not enter service before the Cold War’s end. The new Flanker benefited from the world’s first thrust vectoring engines for supermanoeuvrability, a higher weapons payload, and a longer range among other advantages, and alongside air superiority it placed a greater emphasis on anti ship and strike operations.
The F-15C Eagle entered production in 1978, just two years after the entry into service of the F-15A, and demonstrated considerably superiority capabilities over its predecessor. Developed based on the lessons of the Vietnam War and as a replacement for the F-4E Phantom, the fighter emphasised high manoeuvrability, powerful sensors, a long range, a high altitude and a high weapons payload which provided it with a considerable advantage over the Soviet second and third generation fighters with which it would frequently clash. The Eagle remains to this day the fastest fighter ever built, with a speed of Mach 2.5, which is in part a legacy of its design to counter the Soviet third generation MiG-25 Foxbat interceptor which was capable of exceeding speeds of Mach 3 making it exceedingly difficult for slower American jets to counter. Unlike the F-14 Tomcat, the Eagle did not come equipped with active radar guided or missiles with extreme ranges meaning it was relegated to deploying the AIM-7 Sparrow for the duration of the Cold War, which by the conflict’s end was considerably outclassed. Although the F-15 is touted in the West as an unbeaten fighter, it has suffered several losses in combat including in is last clash with its longtime rival the MiG-25 in 1991, although officially the U.S. claims that all Eagles hit have managed to return to base with none crashing.
Improvements to the Eagle design continue to be made to this day, the latest being the F-15QA designed for export and the F-15EX designed for the U.S. Air Force. While strike variants based on the F-15E Strike Eagle were widely exported, the F-15C dedicated air superiority platform was sold to only three clients and remains the most widely fielded Western air superiority fighter in the world to this day. The Eagle was would remain the most capable fighter in the U.S. Air Force for air to air operations for over 25 years until the entry into service of the F-22 Raptor in 2005, and while challenged by the Su-27 and its increasingly advanced derivatives as well as newer fifth generation designs it remains the most capable Western fourth generation fighter available for export today by a significant margin. Some of the more prominent new enhancements to the F-15C include new electronic warfare systems, new AESA radars, and AIM-120C air to air missiles. Enhanced variants of the Eagle are expected to deploy the upcoming AIM-260 air-to-air missile currently being developed for the U.S. Air Force.
While the MiG-25 Foxbat initially entered service as a third rather than a fourth generation aircraft, its capabilities proved well ahead of those of its period which made it a match for fourth generation fighters throughout its service life. The Foxbat remains the fastest combat aircraft ever to enter service at Mach 3.3, and could operate at extreme altitudes setting a record of almost 38km. Equipped with R-40 air to air missiles, the Foxbat was reported to have multiple kills against Western third and fourth generation jets in Iraqi and Syrian hands – although the more capable MiG-25 variants reserved for the USSR itself were never combat tested. The aircraft frequently found themselves all but invulnerable to enemy fire, and Foxbats operated by the Soviet Air Force flew multiple sorties over heavily fortified Israeli held Sinai without taking damage. Despite Israel fielding the most capable Western fighters and air defences available at the time, and multiple attempts to intercept the Foxbats, the aircraft were near impossible to target. Indian Foxbats operating over Pakistan, and Iraqi Foxbats over Iran, presented similar difficulties for their adversaries. While Foxbats exported appear to have been used primarily in strike and reconnaissance roles, the more advanced interceptor variants deployed by the USSR themselves were considered capable of engaging Western fourth generation fighters – and even in the hands of export clients did so on a number of occasions with their speed and altitude making them extremely difficult for even the top of the line F-14s and F-15s to target. Had the Foxbat been equipped with an updated radar, avionics, electronics and weaponry, as those in the Algerian Air Force still serving today have been, it would have been an even more formidable interceptor in the late Cold War years.
An older version of this article was published in September 2019.