Since their debut in the closing months of World War II, jet fighters have represented the zenith of aviation technology for nearly 70 years and a nation’s air power is intrinsically linked to the quantity and the quality of its fighter arsenals. In those seven decades, fighters have evolved into sophisticated weapons of war, capable of flying day and night in all weather faster than the speed of sound, of performing a myriad of duties such as bombing, electronic warfare and reconnaissance, and of incorporating technologies that only yesterday would have seemed straight out of a science fiction movie such as stealth and helmet-mounted sights. More importantly, they’re friggin’ awesome, as the droves of moviegoers who tried to enlist in the US Navy after watching Top Gun proved. If you’re still not convinced, just go to an air show to hear the roar of jet fighter’s engine, or the crack of its sonic boom, and you’ll remember it for the rest of your life.
But aside from its glamor, air power has evolved into an essential component of modern warfare since World War II, to the point that many strategists consider it to be capable of winning wars on its own (I disagree but this is another story). Certainly the four-day ground campaign which defeated the Iraqi Army in the first Gulf War would have not been so quick and overwhelming had the US and Coalition air forces not pounded it into near-submission for various weeks. But what does the future behold for air power? Will the West’s technological lead over its adversaries, so dramatically shown in the recent conflicts in the Middle East and Yugoslavia, endure in the coming decades or is the balance of power and technology shifting elsewhere? What better way than to see the evolution of fighter aircraft since the first jets took to the skies. Continue reading