- This article refers to a class of aircraft. Light infantry is sometimes referred to in this fashion in the US, see 7th Infantry Division.
A light fighter or lightweight fighter is a type of fighter aircraft with a diminutive airframe, deliberately designed to fill a performance niche based on a high power-to-weight ratio. Typically, light fighters have been dismissed by military planners as being too limited in capability, but several light fighter designs have fairly good combat records.
The original light fighter class developed out of a series of pre-World War II aircraft engines that delivered a high power-to-weight ratio, albeit at a low power rating. In order to make use of these engines, the aircraft carrying them would have to be made as light as possible. However, this is not always easy; some elements of a design simply cannot be scaled down. Nevertheless, there was a brief period in which there was a light-weight sweet spot, and several designs were attempted.
During the late 1930s, the French Armée de l'Air, in an attempt to modernize her fleet of aircraft, produced several light fighter designs of wooden construction that could be built more quickly than conventional designs. The most numerous of these was the Caudron C.714, which exemplified the fundamental flaws of the light fighter concept: underpowered, underarmed, and limited endurance. By contrast, its somewhat heavier contemporary, the Arsenal VG-33, proved to have excellent performance. Delivery of these designs began in early 1940, but France fell before sufficient numbers could be produced to prove the concept in combat. The United States Army Air Corps also contracted for several light fighter designs when it was believed that a massive German attack was forthcoming, but by the time any were ready the fear had passed.
During the war, the Hawker Fury was developed initially as the "Tempest Light Fighter" a lightweight version of the Hawker Tempest though in practice the resulting naval Sea Fury was not significantly different in weight.
Light fighters again became popular in during the early era of jet engine development, for much the same reasons. The most famous of these is the Northrop F-5 "Freedom Fighter", which was largely passed over by the USAF, but saw widespread service around the world due to its low cost. Several attempts have been made to introduce newer designs in the same general performance range as the F-5, but none have been nearly as successful.
The NATO Light Weight Strike Fighter competition of the early 1950s led to designs such as the French SNCASE Baroudeur, Breguet Taon and Dassault Étendard VI, the Italian Aeritalia G.91 and Aerfer Ariete (derived from the Aerfer Sagittario 2) and the US Northrop N-156 (which became the F-5). The competition also compared engines and selected the Bristol Siddeley Orpheus - which had been developed for the Gnat - as the winner.
The General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon was originally conceived under the Lightweight Fighter program as a light fighter, but developed into a highly capable medium fighter-bomber. Robot or remote control fighter craft may usher in a new era of relatively disposable light fighters for high risk missions.
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