Affordable combat aircraft

Truly "affordable" combat aircraft projects don't look the way the JSF program did and does; there were actually affordable aircraft designs with which "affordable" wasn't just a marketing lie and eventually a running gag.

Some affordable combat aircraft have proven to be quite successful even if facing the high end combat aircraft of their own or even a later generation. How did they pull this off, was there any still valid trick?

For this text, I will consider the following example combat aircraft types as successful and "affordable":*

Saab Draken (Mach 2 interceptor, SWE)
Mirage V (Mach 2 ground attack, FRA)
A-4 Skyhawk (subsonic light fighter bomber, USA)
Folland Gnat (subsonic light fighter, UK)
MiG-21 (short-range Mach 2 interceptor, USSR)
SEPECAT Jaguar (supersonic ground attack, UK/France)
AMX (subsonic ground attack, ITA/BRA)
F-5 Freedom Fighter/Tiger II (supersonic light fighter bomber, US)

F-5E in almost clean (dog fight) configuration

(a) Speed: Slowness is not a necessity. Plenty supersonic entries with afterburning turbojets (Jaguar: afterburning turbofans).
(b) Engines: Single engine is not a necessity (Jaguar and F-5 had two)
(c) Avionics: No really powerful radar in the list, but some small radars are in the list.
(d) Agility: Most aircraft in the list were known for fine agility, albeit the subsonic ones have poor thrust/mass and Draken/Mirage had good agility primarily at high altitude.

(e) Undercarriage: Mixed; some are equipped for grass airfields, others not. The Skyhawk undercarriage was even dangerously high.
(f) Crew: Only single seaters, albeit with two-seat trainer versions available.
(g) All-round view: Only AMX and early MiG-21 approached 360° field of view. Most had only about 320°; this allows for more usable internal volume behind the cockpit (avionics black boxes, fuel).
(h) Weight class: Some were distinctly lightweight in their generation (Skyhawk, AMX, F-5), the rest was at least clearly no "heavy" aircraft in their generation (compare Mirage and Phantom II or Thunderchief, for example).
(i) Leap-ahead technologies: Mirage V was a downgraded Mirage III, which was among the first of the Mach 2 generation and one of few pure delta fighters. Draken and MiG-21 were also 1st Mach 2 generation aircraft. Draken pioneered the double delta wing.
(j) Timing: Most examples are from the 50's or 60's. The 1970's Jaguar was "affordable" only in context of its era. The even later AMX was affordable, but not very successful; it was apparently too similar to the performance of armed jet trainers and the time-honoured A-4.
(k) Jointness: None of these was developed as a joint air force and navy aircraft, albeit there was a naval Jaguar version (not produced due to French egoism).
(l) Multinationality: Jaguar and AMX were bilateral development programs.
(m) Air combat armament: None had medium-range (Sparrow class) air-air-missiles

I didn't really hope to discover the secret of how to develop and produce a modern combat aircraft on the cheap, of course. The quick look at the historical examples shows there's not one obvious formula for success.
Not being a "heavy" aircraft is a no-brainer.
Limited avionics suites save bucks (best examples Mirage V, Jaguar), that's also a no-brainer.
Two engines or supersonic ambitions are no K.O. criterion - or weren't.

Maybe the way to an affordable aircraft is
(1) use existing engine(s)**, don't strive for thrust/mass overmatch***
(2) use a small to normal size airframe
(3) use few or normal performance combat avionics
(4) two-seat versions primarily for training, not as main version
(5) good agility within the thrust/mass limitation

The rise of medium range air combat missiles and the growing importance of combat avionics for survival and targeting pose challenges for this 'recipe', though. Furthermore, even aircraft such as Jaguar and AMX were from their start badly challenged in their main roles by the rise of ZSU-23-4 self-propelled anti-air guns.


*: This list skips trainer-based aircraft and specialised ground attack aircraft because I suppose that truly affordable combat aircraft are an attractive option for small air forces, but specialised ground attack aircraft without a good deal of air2air capability are only good for civil wars. F-16 wasn't included because of the more low-cost F-5.
**: Jaguar didn't. Jaguar was kept in the list mostly for having a modest approach towards avionics.
***: F-16 did, and was almost certainly less cost-efficient than the older F-5 throughout the 80's.


  1. I want to nominate the Fiat G91Y (late version with 2x J85 engines and leading edge slats) to your list of affordable aircrafts. At full-load, it is less demanding on takeoff runway distance than the Mirage 5 or the F-5 (more affordability scores !) The Portuegue demonstrated that even in harsh conditions, it remained a reliable weapon.

  2. How do you use these sorts of fighters against modern stealth fighters? The claim of (for example) the F-22 or F-35 is that they can spot another fighter at much longer distance than the enemy fighter can spot it, and launch missiles accordingly. This seems like it would be true of cheap fighters or older generation fighters like the F-15, although I guess losing a cheaper fighter is less of a hit than losing a formerly top-tier air superiority fighter.

    I'm not saying they're worthless, I'm just not sure what they'd do against stealth opponents. My best guess is that they'd stay over friendly territory and use friendly ground-based radar to try and identify targets. That would get you to the general area, but I'm not sure how you'd engage, as a modern fighter (for all the gross inefficiencies) just has so much more range of influence than a cheaper fighter.

    1. The probable approach against high end fighters is likely to address them on the ground, LRRP or Iskander style. Fighters also tend to lose a lot of their qualities once they leave the area of allied support (ground and airborne radar ranges) and enter the constricted airspace of the enemy with its SAM traps.Even a F-22 isn't invisible from below, for example.

      Much depends on the engagement envelopes of the missiles, especially the medium range ones. Old MRAAMs such as Super 530 or Sparrow were only able to engage targets at maximum a few km higher or lower. I'm not sure about AMRAAM's/Meteor's envelopes.
      Now F-22's boast a service ceiling of 60,000 ft and appear to prefer even higher combat altitudes than past Mach 2 generation fighters. It's intricate whether such high-flying fighters will be all that important to what happens at very low altitudes or on the ground. Radar physics can be really, really tricky.

      Modernised MiG-21's were understood to have been still a challenge when the USAF exercised against the Indians a few years ago (article included in my link drop a few weeks ago).

      I suppose an aircraft such as Jaguar would still be useful today, not the least because some PGMs of today are really ALCMs (JASSM, Taurus, Apache, Storm Shadow) or have a very long glide range.
      We should also keep in mind air defences and fighter patrols aren't perfect in a peer/peer conflict. There may be some tank troops on a dashful exploitation move, far ahead of area AD cover and protected only by a few SPAAGs as if it was still a 1980's OMG on the move.

    2. Would the operation of such a fighter look like this?

      It stays within the Zone of own ground based air defences, has information collection support by external sources such as AWACS and either launches missiles to take out high end aircraft, while they're grounded or is directed to sneak up on them for visual range combat by a well developed observation complex. The weakness is in beyond visual range combat against high end enemies and the reliance on an observation complex for information that in turn makes for a defined area of operation without sweeping movements over long distances for unexpected strikes. In short this favours a defensive approach that is closely integrated with ground forces. The American way differs from this by using the air force as an independant strike force that carries out sweeping strikes beyond the range of an elaborate own ground based observation complex. If you are a seapower attacking places worldwide for various reasons, this sounds like a sensible solution, while running a defence in Europe would call for the ideas spelled out in this article. The US was during the F5 and F16 times heavily involved in a defence of Europe with ground force integration.

  3. http://www.airpower.maxwell.af.mil/airchronicles/apj/apj90/win90/1win90.htm

    Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara has come under a great deal of criticism for his stewardship of the Department of Defense during the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Unfortunately, there is much to criticize, but there is much, too, that deserves a closer look, particularly his policies affecting subsequent American fighter aircraft. McNamara greatly strengthened the Office of the Secretary of Defense (consequently diminishing therole of the service secretaries and the military chiefs of staff). High on his agenda was improving coordination and cooperation between the services, in part by deleting or combining duplicative programs and development efforts. He directed the acquisition of the F-4and A-7 by the Air Force and the development of a tactical fighter experimental (TFX), which became the F-111. McNamara has been justly criticized for the latter decision, but the former--supplying the Air Force with variants of the F-4 and A-7--is worthy of much more praise than it has received. Indeed, his initiatives restructured Air Force fighter forces to meet the kind of realworld needs that the United States faced in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

    To understand McNamara's commonality approach, one must make a distinction betweenusage by a service of anaircraft initially developed for another service and the joint simultaneous development of a single aircraft for dual-service use. The F-4 and A-7 are examples of the former, while the TFX/F-111 is an example of the latter. As a rule, theformer category--taking an existing aircraft and modifying it for the needs of another service--has a much greater success rate than the latter, Further, there is a corollary that one can add concerning joint-service use: it is possible to take an aircraft intended for shipboard service and modify it successfully for operation from land. However, it is extremely difficult to take a land-based aircraft and modify it for operation from a ship without undertaking extensive revision and redesign of the airplane. Failure to heed this dictum was one of the most serious errors that prevented the attainment of McNamara's commonality goal with the TFX/F-111.

  4. What do you want this "affordable" combat aircraft to do? Is it a lightweight fighter with some ground attack capability? Or a ground attack aircraft?

    1. More cost-efficient than typical alternative aircraft.

  5. You might be interested in this page:

    In fact, a small affordable fighter can still target a stealth fighter quite successfully using an IRST system such as the ones used in the eurocanards.
    But ultimately, most aerial combat still happens within visual range due to the shortcomings of BVR combat.

    1. This is a well-known claim, but it was never proved, and I like it this way.