Since Wilbur and Orville Wright first took off at Kitty Hawk, America has always been a leader in flight. That legacy continues today, as America remains one of the biggest producers and users of top-of-the-line fighter jets. These are the 15 best American fighter jets currently in use by the U.S. Military.
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With contractors like McDonnell Douglas and Boeing right here in our own backyard, newer versions of these craft are easier to come by. There’s also the fact that there are significant financial incentives for some in private industry and political office and government to grow military spending.
Whatever the reason, there is no denying that America replaces its fighter jets faster and with more regularity than most nations. For example, Japan, whose military budget is eighth largest in the world, still has a few McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II in its air force.
America, by contrast, spends more on the next eight militaries combined, which – other social factors aside – contributes to its ability to replace those old F-4s with the biggest and best fighter jets out there.
Another thing demonstrating that discrepancy is the size of the US Air Force and Navy’s aircraft roster. How many fighter jets does the US have? Exact figures of fighters themselves are hard to come by, but the American Military has 13,000 total aircraft. No other military has more than 3,000.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the aircraft which make the cut to be the best current United States fighter jets.
1. F-15 Eagle
Few aircraft are more iconic in the American imagination than the McDonnell Douglas F-15. Since the 70s, it has been virtually synonymous with “fighter jet” in the minds of most Americans, and for good reason.
That isn’t to say that the F-15 is the most recent fighter jet on our list – on the contrary, this decades-old jet is one of the oldest entries. Even so, its continued use is a testament to just how durable and serviceable this old ace of the skies continues to be.
The F-15 has been sold to allies such as Israel and Japan, as well as other nations such as Saudi Arabia. It has been extremely successful, with no recorded losses in combat and a long and illustrious service record in the American and Israeli Air Forces in particular.
2. F-15E Strike Eagle
A variation of the classic F-15, the McDonnell Douglas / Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle was first introduced in 1989. This two-seat upgrade to the classic jet is able to operate in all kinds of visibility and weather conditions, continuing the F-15’s reputation for versatility.
The F-15E Strike Eagle has been designed to operate in a dual capacity, being as adept at taking on air-to-air missions against other aircraft as it is in carrying out air-to-ground assignments.
That two-seat upgrade is also important. Having an extra pilot on hand can be incredibly helpful for getting radar readouts, selecting targets, and assisting with other essential in-flight duties.
3. F-16 Fighting Falcon
This is another fighter jet that has a long service history, first entering service in 1979. In that time, it has come to be another staple of the American Air Force and Navy, with more than 1,000 still in service today.
This is another versatile aircraft which is able to take on a wide variety of missions. Like the F-15 and its Strike Eagle upgrade, it has been frequently used for air-to-air and air-to-ground missions.
What helps distinguish the F-16 Fighting Falcon is the fact that it is also adept at carrying out electronic attacks, an ability which is evermore valuable in our ever-changing electricity-dependent landscape.
4. F-22 Raptor
A much more recent addition to the Air Force’s roster, the F-22 Raptor was first adapted by the military in 2005. The Air Force has designated this fighter jet as part of its fifth generation of aircraft.
One of the most distinguishable parts of this jet is the fact that it’s able to maintain low visibility, hiding from other jets and giving it a distinct advantage over other aircraft.
Production of the F-22 ceased in 2011, though it remains a vital part of the Air Force’s roster. While there weren’t as many built as the venerable F-15 and F-16 models, the F-22 still had a respectable 195 total craft produced.
5. F-35A Lightning II
This stealth fighter jet has had a long and sometimes troubled production history. During the course of its testing, it had significant problems, ranging from battery issues to difficulties in adverse weather conditions to issues with its stealth features.
This resulted in lengthy production delays, to say nothing of the billions spent on correcting these issues. Thankfully, many of those issues have been sorted out, and the F-35 is finally starting to see service.
The Israeli Air Force has placed a considerably large order for these new fighter jets, and were the first country to deploy them in action in Syria in May 2018. The US used them in anti-ISIS strikes in 2019.
6. McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet
Now we switch from fighter jets used by the United States Air Force to those piloted by their Brothers and Sisters in Arms in the Navy. The F-18 Hornet was first produced by McDonnell Douglas in the mid-70s, though Boeing has taken over production since the mid-90s.
It is a craft which has seen extensive use in America’s engagements in the Middle East over the past couple decades, playing key roles in the air offensives during the Gulf War and the Iraq War.
Its longevity is due in large part to its versatility. The F-19 Hornet is designed for and has carried out, at various stages of its operational career, everything from reconnaissance to close aerial support to suppression of and attacks on opposing forces.
7. Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet
As you might guess, this is a variant of the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet. It is capable of longer missions thanks to an external fuel system. It also lives up to the “super” part of its name, being considerably larger than the standard F-18 Hornet.
It first entered active service in the US Air Force in 2001, and entered service in the Royal Australian Air Force in 2010. The United States Navy placed an order with Boeing for 78 more in March 2019.
Like its predecessor, the F-18 Super Hornet has seen considerable action in the Middle East, being used in anti-ISIS strikes. The F-18 Super Hornet is an aircraft carrier-based fighter jet, as exemplified by those anti-ISIS strikes, which took place from the USS George H.W. Bush.
8. Grumman F-14 Tomcat
Because public information on current American fighter jets is understandably limited, it is here that we start to get into training jet planes and those which are less than current. The F-14 Tomcats are a little of both.
While the F-18 Super Hornet replaced the F-14 Tomcat on active duty, they are still valuable as training jets. What’s more, while the US Navy retired them from service in 2006, they are still used by Iran, to whom the US sold several units while replacing them.
During their time in service with the US Navy, they were used as interceptors. However, to prolong their lives, plans were developed for them to be improved with ground attack capabilities.
9. T-45 Goshawk
This is another craft which began life as a McDonnell Douglas creation, only for production to later be taken over by Boeing. It is also another fighter jet which is far past its prime, but continues to live on as a training jet.
The T-45 Goshawk was introduced way back in 1991, and remains an active part of the US Navy, albeit in a mainly training capacity. Like the F-18s, it was designed as an aircraft which could be used in conjunction with an aircraft carrier.
Several variants have been produced over the fighter’s lifespan. These have included the T-45A, which is a two-seat variant also used by the US Marines, and the T-45C, an upgraded version with a glass cockpit and other augments, which currently serves as a model for T-45s still in service today.
10. Northrop F-5
As with the F-45 Goshawk, the Northrop F-5 is a jet trainer used to get new Navy pilots “up to speed.” It is a true blast from the past, being first flown in its original form way back in 1959.
Needless to say, it has seen several modifications since then, with its Tiger II upgrade being the basis for the models still in service today. A, B, C, D, E, and F variants were also produced, with a couple thousand F-5s being made in total between them. Of those, around 500 remain in service as training jets.
The fighter jets saw service during the Vietnam War. Some were captured during the fall of Saigon, after which point the Khmer Rouge were able to use a small number of them in occasional operations.
11. Northrop T-38 Talon
The Northrop F-5 left a lasting mark on the history of fighter jets within the Northrop company, and the T-38 Talon is an extension of that. Like its predecessor, it served as a light jet which was then used for training missions.
The T-38 was also notable for how it helped spur on the development of fighter jet technology. This is significant because of the lasting impact the F-5 family of fighter jets had on future jets. The F/A-18s owe something of their design to the F-5s and, by extension, the T-38.
As a modification of the F-5, it remains one of the longest-serving jets in the US Air Force, with its total service time stretching back 50 years. Pilots from other NATO nations take place in joint training sessions as well.
12. Raytheon T-1 Jayhawk
Here we have yet another jet which has found a long life in the US Air Force by being used as a training model. The Raytheon T-1 Jayhawk is a twin-engine craft which is used by trainee pilots once they reach an advanced stage in their training.
The first units were used back in 1992, with 180 being built. It is a military version of the commercial Beech 400A, and is capable of reaching speeds of up to 538mph.
It is a medium-range craft, which only adds to its versatility as a training jet. That has not gone unnoticed, as it is used as a training craft by the US Marines as well.
13. Northrop YF-17
The Northrop YF-17 is a craft that never saw active service, but rather served as one of the prototypes which was so influential in helping Northrop develop the technology necessary to make the F-18 Hornet.
Only two were ever produced. Northrop entered them in the US Air Force’s Lightweight Fighter program, a competition for aircraft designers. They lost to the prototype for what would become the F-16.
Even so, any progress is welcome, and the focus on light weight and maneuverability which were present in this model spurred lasting design changes which helped make the F-18 a success.
14. Boeing T-7 Red Hawk T-X
Now we move from a past prototype to a future one. The Boeing F-7 Red Hawk T-X is a twin-seat fighter jet which Boeing has built from scratch, independent of previous models. It is intended to be a more slender, sleek, next-gen fighter jet.
As evidenced by the back half of this list, Boeing and Northrop are engaged in something of a rivalry when it comes to designing training and prototype fighter planes. With the latter getting a recent contract for bombers, Boeing could use the defense contract for this.
There is still much work to be done on the model, with a release date scheduled for 2023. What the finished product looks like is sure to be a subject of conjecture and buzz in the coming years in aeronautical circles.
15. Boeing EA-18G Growler
As stated above with the F-16 Fighting Falcon, electronic warfare is becoming ever more important. That said, as with other F-16 models, the Fighting Falcon is on the older side for a fighter jet.
A potential long-term replacement for it could be the Boeing EA-18G Growler. It, too, is designed to feature electronic warfare capabilities. The model first flew in 2006, was introduced into the US Air Force in 2009, and remains in active service.
What’s more, other countries have taken notice. The Royal Australian Air Force has placed orders for the Boeing EA-18G Growler. US EA-18G Growlers were employed in military operations in Libya in 2011.