Third-generation jet fighter

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The third-generation jet fighter was the class of fighters developed between the early 1960s to the 1970s.

MiG-21: The most-produced third generation fighter


The third generation witnessed continued maturation of second-generation innovations, but it is most marked by renewed emphases on manoeuvrability and traditional ground-attack capabilities. Over the course of the 1960s, increasing combat experience with guided missiles demonstrated that combat would devolve into close-in dogfights. Analog avionics began to be introduced, replacing older "steam-gauge" cockpit instrumentation. Enhancements to improve the aerodynamic performance of third-generation fighters included flight control surfaces such as canards, powered slats, and blown flaps. A number of technologies would be tried for Vertical/Short Takeoff and Landing, but thrust vectoring would be successful on the Harrier jump jet.


Growth in air combat capability focused on the introduction of improved air-to-air missiles, radar systems, and other avionics. While guns remained standard equipment (early models of F-4 being a notable exception), air-to-air missiles became the primary weapons for air superiority fighters. They employed more sophisticated radars and medium-range RF AAMs to achieve greater "stand-off" ranges, however, kill probabilities proved unexpectedly low for RF missiles due to poor reliability and improved electronic countermeasures (ECM) for spoofing radar seekers. Infrared-homing AAMs saw their fields of view expand to 45°, which strengthened their tactical usability. Nevertheless, the low dogfight loss-exchange ratios experienced by American fighters in the skies over Vietnam led the U.S. Navy to establish its famous "TOPGUN" fighter weapons school, which provided a graduate-level curriculum to train fleet fighter pilots in advanced Air Combat Maneuvering (ACM) and Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) tactics and techniques.


This era also saw an expansion in ground-attack capabilities, principally in guided missiles, and witnessed the introduction of the first truly effective avionics for enhanced ground attack, including terrain-avoidance systems. Air-to-surface missiles (ASM) equipped with electro-optical (E-O) contrast seekers – such as the initial model of the widely used AGM-65 Maverick – became standard weapons, and laser-guided bombs (LGBs) became widespread in effort to improve precision-attack capabilities. Guidance for such precision-guided munitions (PGM) was provided by externally mounted targeting pods, which were introduced in the mid-1960s.

It also led to the development of new automatic-fire weapons, primarily chain-guns that use an electric motor to drive the mechanism of a cannon; this allowed a single multi-barrel weapon (such as the 20 mm Vulcan) to be carried and provided greater rates of fire and accuracy. Powerplant reliability increased and jet engines became "smokeless" to make it harder to visually sight aircraft at long distances.


Dedicated ground-attack aircraft (like the Grumman A-6 Intruder, SEPECAT Jaguar and LTV A-7 Corsair II) offered longer range, more sophisticated night attack systems or lower cost than supersonic fighters. With variable-geometry wings, the supersonic F-111 introduced the Pratt & Whitney TF30, the first turbofan equipped with afterburner. The ambitious project sought to create a versatile common fighter for many roles and services. It would serve well as an all-weather bomber, but lacked the performance to defeat other fighters. The McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom was designed around radar and missiles as an all-weather interceptor, but emerged as a versatile strike bomber nimble enough to prevail in air combat, adopted by the U.S. Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. Despite numerous shortcomings that would not be fully addressed until newer fighters, the Phantom claimed 280 aerial kills, more than any other U.S. fighter over Vietnam.[1] With range and payload capabilities that rivaled that of World War II bombers such as B-24 Liberator, the Phantom would become a highly successful multi-role aircraft.



Aircraft Primary
In service Length
Wing area
sq. m
Max takeoff
Max Speed
McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II  United States 5,195 1958 1960–Present 19.20 11.70 49.20 13,757 kg 28,030 kg 2,370 2,600 18,300 2 × 52.9 kN/79.4 kN
Aeritalia F-104S Starfighter  Italy 246 1966 1969-2004 16.7 6.68 18.2 6,760 kg 14,060 kg 2,330 2,920 17,680 1 x 52.8 kN/79.6 kN
Dassault Mirage F1  France 720 1966 1973–Present 15.30 8.40 25.00 7,400 kg 10,900 kg 2,338 3,300 20,000 1 × 49.03 kN/70.61 kN
IAI Kfir  Israel 220 1973 1976-1996 15.65 8.22 34.80 7,285 kg 16,200 kg 2,440 768 17,680 1 × 52.9 kN/79.62 kN
Saab 37 Viggen  Sweden 329 1967 1971-2005 16.40 10.60 46.00 9,500 kg 20,000 kg 2,231 2,000 18,000 1 × 72.1 kN/125.0 kN
Mitsubishi F-1  Japan 77 1975 1978-2006 17.86 7.88 21.20 6,358 kg 13,674 kg 1,700 2,870 15,240 2 × 22.8 kN/35.6 kN
Atlas Cheetah  South Africa 70 1983 1986–Present 15.55 8.22 35.00 6,600 kg 13,700 kg 2,350 1,300 17,000 1 × 71.0 kN
Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23 'Flogger'  Soviet Union 5,047 1967 1970–Present 16.70 13.97 37.35 9,595 kg 18,030 kg 2,445 2,820 18,500 1 × 83.6 kN/127 kN
Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25 'Foxbat'  Soviet Union 1,186 1964 1970–Present 19.75 14.01 61.40 20,000 kg 36,720 kg 3,470 1,730 20,700 2 × 73.5 kN/100.1 kN
Sukhoi Su-15 'Flagon'  Soviet Union 1,290 1962 1965-1996 19.56 9.34 36.60 10,874 kg 17,194 kg 2,230 1,380 18,100 2 × 40.21 kN/70.0 kN
Tupolev Tu-28 'Fiddler'  Soviet Union 198 1961 1964-1990 30.06 17.53 96.94 24,500 kg 43,700 kg 1,920 2,565 15,600 2 × 72.8 kN/99.1 kN
Shenyang J-8 'Finback'  People's Republic of China 390 1969 1980–Present 21.52 9.34 42.2 10,371 kg 18,879 kg 2,336 1,000 11,000 2 × 47.1 kN/68.7 kN
HAL Ajeet  India 89 1976 1977-1991 9.04 6.73 12.69 2,307 kg 4,173 kg 1,152 172 45,000 1 x 20.0 kN

Note: Thrust Dry/Afterburner (in some cases only data for one of the two might be available)

Cancelled Aircraft[edit]