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MIlitary 101 - U.S. Air Force fighter aircraft

F-22 Raptors of the 1st Fighter Wing
F-22 Raptors of the 1st Fighter Wing

The U.S. Air Force has three primary fighter aircraft - the F-15 Eagle, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, and the F-22 Raptor. Each aircraft brings certain advantages and disadvantages over the other, and each has unique capabilities that give them advantages in aerial warfare.

The F-15 Eagle, considered by many to be the finest air superiority fighter in the world, was designed from the ground up as a dogfighter. Armed with a lethal assortment of air-to-air weapons, including the AIM-7 Sparrow, AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, along with the APG-70 radar system, the F-15 has one of the best worldwide records in air-to-air combat, both with the U.S. and Israel, one of the main export customers of the Eagle. A special version of the F-15, the F-15E Strike Eagle, is also able to carry air-to-ground munitions, further expanding the capabilities of this aircraft.

The F-16 Fighting Falcon, or "Viper" as it is known by its pilots, due to a resemblance to the fictional fighter craft from Battlestar Galactica, is also flown by many U.S. and allied squadrons around the world, including the Iowa Air National Guard's 132nd Tactical Fighter Wing, based in Des Moines, IA. The F-16 carries most of the same weapons as the F-15, albeit fewer of them due to its smaller size. Still, the Fighting Falcon has also established itself as a formidable dogfighter worldwide.

The newest aircraft in the Air Force's fighter arsenal is the F-22A Raptor. The Raptor is unique because it was designed from the ground up as a stealth aircraft - all ordnance is carried internally, to eliminate the radar signatures produced by hanging external stores. The Raptor is also the first aircraft to utilize supercruise, the ability to cruise at supersonic speeds without the use of afterburners. This gives the Raptor an advantage in fuel economy and range over both the F-15 and F-16.

The Raptor was initially intended to replace the F-15, much as the F-35 is scheduled to replace the F-16. However, Congress recently cancelled the F-22 development program, curtailing it at 187 aircraft. This puts the F-16 and F-15 up against Russian 4th and 5th-generation fighters that are their equal, if not superior. This would put U.S. pilots at serious risk if a conflict ever erupted with countries such as North Korea or Iran, both of whom are major Russian military hardware customers.