Is there a difference between all the different fighter jets you hear about? Does the Army or Navy fly fighter jets, or is it just the Air Force? How many different fighter jets does the U.S. fly right now? Finally, you can have your life’s most important questions answered on a single page!
Let’s dive right in to our primer on modern US Fighter jets!
I’ll comment on the planes individually, but here’s a convenient comparison. Where there are obvious “better” and “worse” attributes, I provided color-coded dots (green is better, red is worse).
The Air Force primarily flies two major variants of the F-15: the F-15C Eagle, and the F-15E Strike Eagle. The F-15C is an upgraded version of the original F-15. It keeps its pure role as an air superiority fighter. McDonnel Douglas (the manufacturer of the F-15 until they were bought by Boeing) later developed the F-15E to provide a ground attack capability. It’s a good example of how an aircraft designed to do one thing extremely well (ie, air superiority) can be later modified to do other things well enough (ie, ground attack). The F-15E has stood as an example to armchair generals who disapprove of the military’s current preference for developing a “jack-of-all” duties platform from the start (such as the F-35).
You can tell the F-15 apart from other fighters primarily by looking for its two vertical stabilizers (tail fins). Other US fighters either have slanted stabilizers, or just one. It also has boxy-looking air intakes.
Fun things to note for the F-15: it has never credibly lost an air battle. Its official record is 104-0, and although some nations claim to have beaten an F-15, none of them have been able to provide evidence.
F-16 Fighting Falcon
The F-16 Falcon (or Fighting Falcon) doesn’t have major variants in the same way as the F-15 or F/A-18. The F-16 is and easy to recognize since it has a single vertical stabilizer and doesn’t look like a harrier (we’ll get to the harrier later). It also has a large air intake for its single engine on the underside, making it look a bit like a snake ready-to-strike (which is why it’s sometimes referred to as a Viper).
The F-16 has at various times been the most numerous fixed-wing fighter in service. This largely comes from its relatively low price tag compared to other similar fighter jets. The F-15 and F-16 were developed under a “high/low” theory of a fighter fleet. The F-15 flies faster, higher, and heavier, but for a higher price, while the F-16 flies slower, lower, and lighter for cheap. Having both in your hangars allows you to make up for the weaknesses of either.
The F-16 is also the first aircraft designed somewhat aerodynamically unstable to increase maneuverability. This would make the F-16 supremely difficult to fly, except that it is also the first fighter jet with a “fly-by-wire” system (which I explained in my Primer on Modern U.S. Military Aircraft.)
The F-16 earns special recognition as the jet flown by the Thunderbirds. You can see them perform at USAF air shows.
Right now, the F/A-18 Hornet has two main variants – the “Hornet” (F/A-18 As, Bs, Cs, and Ds), as well as the larger “Super Hornet” (Es and Fs). The Super Hornet (also known as a “Rhino”) is noticeably larger with its conformal fuel tanks and other modifications. The EA-18G Growler also uses this frame, but has modifications to make it suitable for electronic attack.
The hornet has a few distinguishing features – for one thing, it’ll be nearly the only fighter jet on a U.S. aircraft carrier right now. You might see a harrier or F-35, but you won’t confuse an F/A-18 for them. It also has two slanted vertical stabilizers, and a lip that goes up from its wing toward the nose (called a “leading edge root extension“). If it doesn’t look “stealthy”, and has two tail fins that slant, it’s an F/A-18.
Right now, the F/A-18 gets most of its press by falling out of the sky or being unable to fly at all. The Navy had intended to retire most of its F/A-18 fleet by now for the F-35. Unfortunately, the F-35 has taken must more time (and money) to complete than expected. As a result, the Navy’s fighter wing is much older and worn down than designed.
The high operating tempo alone would be enough to wear out the older F/A-18 frames, but F/A-18s have had to take on the extra task of performing air refueling activity. The Navy is currently working to get a dedicated air refueler, but that’s a topic for another day.
The F/A-18s are the jet of choice for the Blue Angels. You’ll see them at Naval air shows.
AV-8B Harrier Jump Jet
The other fighter-looking jet you might see on a carrier is the AV-8B Harrier. There have been many versions for the U.S. and other nations over the years, but the U.S. has one left that it’s really trying to phase out. The Harrier’s biggest claim to fame comes from its ability for vertical take off and landings. The harrier is easy to spot even when it’s not floating – you can look for the large, round air intakes, supporting wheels beneath the wings, the sloping horizontal stabilizers, and just a generally hunchy look.
The Harrier primarily works for the Marines. Its ability to take off in short distances or vertically allows it on smaller ships and can enable Marines to operate further ahead of supporting infrastructure. The F-35B will soon replace it once enough get made and declared fully combat ready.
The Raptor is the premier Air Superiority fighter in the world right now. Its difficult to detect by radar, fast, agile, and high-flying. Unfortunately, the raptor also came with a high price tag at a time when advanced Air Superiority capability seemed less important, so it got cut after fewer than 200 jets were built.
F-22s can be recognized by their diamond-shaped wings, 2 engines (compared to the F-35’s single engine), and odd-shaped split tail-fins. The paint on the F-22 (and F-35) plays a role in its “stealth” capabilities, so it almost always has that dark charcoal color.
F-35 Lightning II
The F-35 is almost 3 different airplanes. The smallest version for the Air Force is the F-35A. The Marines will get the F-35B, which can do short take-off and vertical landing (like the Harrier). The Navy will eventually use the F-35C, a variant suited for take-off and landing on a carrier, which requires a larger wing and much stronger landing gear.
You can recognize the F-35 by its dark color (similar to the F-22) with a single engine. Really, the simplest way to pick out an F-35 will be to see if it looks “stealthy” and has a single engine. If you see them side-by-side, you’ll also see that the F-35 is noticeably smaller than the F-22.
Extra: The F-14 Tomcat
Many people are surprised to find out that the airplane Tom Cruise flew in Top Gun is no longer in service. Until it was retired in 2006, the F-14 was the “high” to the F/A-18’s “low” role for the Navy. This larger, 2-seater jet provided Air Superiority for the Navy.
You can recognize the F-14 by its squarish shape and swept wings.
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Table column photos:
|F-15||Angelique Perez, U.S. Air Force|
|F-16||Staff Sgt. Cherie A. Thurlby|
|F/A-18||U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Andy M. Kin|
|F-22||Master Sgt. Andy Dunaway|
|F-35||Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen|
Section header photos
Cover photo: USAF