A fighter aircraft is a military aircraft designed primarily for air-to-air combat against other aircraft, as opposed to bombers and attack aircraft, whose main mission is to attack ground targets. The hallmarks of a fighter are its speed, maneuverability, and small size relative to other combat aircraft.
Many fighters have secondary ground-attack capabilities, and some are designed as dual-purpose fighter-bombers. Often, aircraft that do not fulfill the standard definition are called fighters. This may be for political or national security reasons, for advertising purposes or other reasons.
A fighter's main purpose is to establish air superiority over a battlefield. Since World War I, achieving and maintaining air superiority has been essential for victory in conventional warfare. The success or failure of a belligerent's efforts to gain air supremacy hinges on several factors including the skill of its pilots, the tactical soundness of its doctrine for deploying its fighters and the numbers and performance of those fighters. Because of the importance of air superiority, since the dawn of aerial combat armed forces have constantly competed to develop technologically superior fighters and to deploy these fighters in greater numbers, and fielding a viable fighter fleet consumes a substantial proportion of the defense budgets of modern armed forces.
As a part of military nomenclature, a letter is often assigned to various types of aircraft to indicate their use, along with a number to indicate the specific aircraft. The letters used to designate a fighter differ in various countries — in the English speaking world, "F" is now used to indicate a fighter (e.g. F-35 or Spitfire F.22), though when the pursuit designation was used in the US, they were "P" types (e.g. P-40). In Russia "I" was used (I-16), while the French continue to use "C" (Nieuport 17 C.1).
Although the term "fighter" specifies aircraft designed to shoot down other aircraft, such designs are often also useful as multirole fighter-bombers, strike fighters, and sometimes lighter, fighter-sized tactical ground-attack aircraft. This has always been the case, for instance the Sopwith Camel and other "fighting scouts" of World War I performed a great deal of ground-attack work. In World War II, the USAAF and RAF often favored fighters over dedicated light bombers or dive bombers, and types such as the P-47 Thunderbolt and Hawker Hurricane that were no longer competitive fighters were relegated to ground attack. A number of aircraft, such as the F-111 and F-117, had no fighter capability despite carrying the designation but did so for political reasons. The F-111 was originally intended for a fighter role with the Navy, but this variant was cancelled. This blurring follows the use of fighters from their earliest days for "attack" or "strike" operations against enemy troops, field positions, vehicles, and facilities by means of strafing or dropping small bombs and incendiaries. Versatile multirole fighter-bombers such as the F/A-18 Hornet are a less expensive option than having a range of specialized aircraft types.
Some of the most expensive fighters such as the F-14 Tomcat, F-22 Raptor and F-15 Eagle were employed as all-weather interceptors as well as air superiority fighter aircraft, while commonly developing air-to-ground roles late in their careers. An interceptor is generally an aircraft intended to target (or intercept) bombers and so often trades maneuverability for climb rate.
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