The third-generation jet fighter was the class of fighters developed between the early 1960s to the 1970s.
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, which 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 be not be fully addressed until newer fighters, the Phantom claimed 280 aerial kills, more than any other U.S. fighter over Vietnam. With range and payload capabilities that rivalled that of World War II bombers such as B-24 Liberator, the Phantom would became a highly successful multi-role aircraft.
- South Africa
- Soviet Union
- United Kingdom
- People's Republic of China
- Nanchang J-12 (maiden flight on 26 December 1970)
- Project Sabre II(Project Abandoned)
- Soviet Union
- United States
- Bell D-188A (never built)
- Douglas F5D Skylancer (maiden flight on 21 April 1956)
- Douglas F6D Missileer (never built)
- General Dynamics/Grumman F-111B (maiden flight on 18 May 1965)
- Grumman XF12F (never built)
- Lockheed CL-1200/X-27 Lancer (never built)
- Lockheed YF-12 (maiden flight on 7 August 1963)
- North American XF-108 Rapier (never built)
- Rockwell XFV-12 (incapable of flight)
- Vought XF8U-3 Crusader III (maiden flight on 2 June 1958)
- Northrop F-20 Tigershark
- West Germany
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