Since the end of World War II, fierce competition between the United States and the Soviet Union has seen the arrival of the most capable fighters and interceptors for air combat.

Every time one side launched a jet, there was also a peer competitor on the other side, to ensure that the opponent never had an absolute advantage in the air. Until the race ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, here are 5 air superiority fighters and interceptors with strong air-to-air combat capabilities in an attempt to dominate the skies on both sides.

First, the F-14D ‘Super Tomcat’, the last fighter aircraft of the Cold War. The ‘Super Tomcat’ entered service just a few 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.

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, possibly in anticipation of the induction of Soviet stealth fighters which it was well suited to locking on to. This system 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.

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 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. 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 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 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.

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.

Source: militarywatchmagazine


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