air superiority combat aircraft

6th May 2018.


“Command of the air is a necessary and sufficient condition of victory.” Giulio Douhet, The Command of The Air, 1998.

Air supremacy is paramount to any military operation. Air superiority fighters are designed to enter and seize enemy airspace to establish complete dominance over the enemy’s air force. They are designed primarily to engage enemy airborne fighters.

The US Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, named Joint Publication 1-02 defines air superiority and air supremacy:

Joint Publication 1-02 “Air superiority is that degree of dominance that permits friendly land, sea and air forces to operate at a given time and place without prohibitive interference by the opposing force. Air supremacy is that degree of air superiority wherein opposing air and space forces are incapable of effective interference anywhere in a given theater of operations.”

There are three essential characteristics of an air superiority combat aircraft:

  • Air-to-air role
  • First launch opportunity
  • Flown by singularity trained air-to-air pilots.

Air-to-air role

Air-to-air operations are the targeted destruction of enemy airborne aircraft. An air superiority fighter must be specifically designed for this role. Speed, agility and climb performance are essential. Air superiority fighters must carry lighter missiles designed to down enemy aircraft.

First launch opportunity

The successful air superiority fighter must strike first in air-to-air combat. This requires the aircraft to have superior avionics and weapons to quickly and accurately deploy its arsenal.

Flown by singularity trained air-to-air pilots.

In any military, there must be pilots specifically trained for air-to-air combat. Without trained air-to-air pilots, these multi-million pound combat aircraft cannot be fully effective in combat.

In summary

  • Air superiority is to gain control in as quick a way as possible an enemy airspace.
  • Complete air supremacy means the enemy is incapable of conducting aerial operations, either airborne or surface-to-air.

What makes a good air superiority pilot?

"Red Baron" Manfred von Richthofen. Photography: Willi Sanke postcard #503 (cropped). Immediate source: The Wartenberg Trust, Public Domain,

"Red Baron" Manfred von Richthofen. Photography: Willi Sanke postcard #503 (cropped). Immediate source: The Wartenberg Trust, Public Domain,

“The job of the fighter pilot is to roam his allotted area in any way- he likes, when he spots an enemy, he shoots him down. Anything else is rubbish.” Manfred von Richthofen

Widely recognised as the most skilled fighter pilot, an aces-of-aces, respected by his enemies and a hero by his nation, is the German “Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen. His success as a fighter pilot came through World War I, and was credited with 80 kills.

Red baron credited his success in the air to fundamental dogfighting maxims by his hero and mentor, Oswald Boelcke, called the Dicta Boelcke:

  1. Use surprise to get the upper hand.
  2. Once engaged, remain committed to the battle.
  3. Get close to the enemy before pulling the trigger.
  4. Keep your eye on the enemy at all times, even if you think he’s going down.
  5. Always get in behind your enemy.
  6. Point your plane at danger.
  7. Use caution, especially when over enemy lines.

Four air superiority fighters

USA (also used by Israel, Japan and Saudi Arabia): McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle

McDonnell Douglas F-15C-35-MC  Eagle  (s/n 83-0026). U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Samuel Rogers

McDonnell Douglas F-15C-35-MC Eagle (s/n 83-0026). U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Samuel Rogers

The McDonnell Douglas F-15 is widely regarded as the world’s premier air superiority fighter. There are many variants of the F-15, with the F-15C Eagle the current model for air superiority operations. Whilst the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor is the newest fifth generation stealth air superiority fighter, the F-15’s unparalleled history as a 104 kills to 0 losses ratio makes it a formidable fighter and the most feared aircraft to any enemy throughout the history of fighter jets.

The air-to-air kills during operations on the F-15A/C/I/S Eagle are:

  • Gulf War (USA) - 32
  • Gulf War (Saudi Arabia) - 2
  • Northern Watch, Southern Watch, Desert Fox (USA) - 2
  • Kosovo (USA) - 4
  • Syrian border clashes 1979-1981 (Israel) - 19
  • Lebanon War (1982) (Israel) - 38
  • Lebanon War 1982-2000 (Israel) - 4
  • Iran Gulf Clash 1984 (Saudi Arabia) - 1

The F-15's have also been deployed in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon.

China: Chengdu J-20

Chengdu J-20. Photo: PLAAF

Chengdu J-20. Photo: PLAAF

We have all seen China’s rise as a major global player in the international community. With China's economic prosperity also comes their rapid improvements in their military capabilities. The Chengdu J-20 is the latest fifth generation stealth fighter. The RAND corporation in a report on US and Chinese air superiority capabilities concluded that “Although the United States continues to maintain unparalleled air-to-air capabilities, the modernization of Chinese air forces, combined with the inherent difficulties of operating over long distances in the Asian theater, make it increasingly challenging for the United States to gain air superiority during the first days or weeks of a possible conflict with China.”

Russia: Sukhoi Su-57

Sukhoi Su-57. Photo by Alex Beltyukov -, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Sukhoi Su-57. Photo by Alex Beltyukov -, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Sukhoi Su-57 is a fifth generation stealth fighter designed for air superiority. It is the first Russian aircraft to use stealth technology. It has a high emphasis on speed, which allow it to respond quickly, or back out quickly from dogfights. The Sukhoi Su-57 is not yet operational, but is due to be operational in 2019.

UK (and others, including Spain, Germany and Italy): Eurofighter Typhoon

Eurofighter Typhoon. Photo by Chris Lofting -, GFDL 1.2,

Eurofighter Typhoon. Photo by Chris Lofting -, GFDL 1.2,

The Eurofighter Typhoon is claimed to be the world’s most advanced combat aircraft. With over 210,000+ flying hours, this combat proven aircraft has a 97% achievement rate in tasked operations. The Eurofighter Typhoon is a highly agile aircraft, designed for the purpose of air superiority, however upgrades have changed its role from air superiority to a multi-purpose fighter, with its use as air-to-surface as well as air-to-air.

Fifth-Generation combat fighters

The latest generation of combat aircraft are the fifth generation, with only three currently operational. These are the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and Chengdu J-20. The Sukhoi Su-57 has been planned to be fully operational in 2019.