Interceptor aircraft

An interceptor aircraft, or simply interceptor, is a type of fighter aircraft designed specifically for the defensive interception role against an attacking enemy aircraft, particularly bombers and reconnaissance aircraft. Aircraft that are capable of being or are employed as both ‘standard’ air superiority fighters and as interceptors are sometimes known as fighter-interceptors. There are two general classes of interceptor:[according to whom?] light fighters, designed for high performance over short range; and heavy fighters, which are intended to operate over longer ranges, in contested airspace and adverse meteorological conditions. While the second type was exemplified historically by specialized night fighter and all-weather interceptor designs, the integration of mid-air refueling, satellite navigation, on-board radar and beyond visual range (BVR) missile systems since the 1960s has allowed most frontline fighter designs to fill the roles once reserved for specialised night/all-weather fighters.

The Convair F-106 Delta Dart, a principal interceptor of the U.S. Air Force in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s

For daytime operations, conventional light fighters have normally filled the interceptor role. Day interceptors have been used in a defensive role since World War I, and are perhaps best known from major actions like the Battle of Britain, when the Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane were part of a successful defensive strategy. However, dramatic improvements in both ground-based and airborne radar gave greater flexibility to existing fighters and few later designs were conceived as dedicated day interceptors. (Exceptions include the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet, which was the only rocket-powered, manned military aircraft to see combat. To a lesser degree, the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15, which had heavy armament specifically intended for anti-bomber missions, was also a specialised day interceptor.)

Night fighters and bomber destroyers are interceptors of the heavy type, although initially they were rarely referred to as such. In the early Cold War era the combination of jet-powered bombers and nuclear weapons created air force demand for highly capable interceptors; it is in regards to this period that the term is perhaps most recognized and used. Examples of classic interceptors of this era include the Convair F-106 Delta Dart, Sukhoi Su-15, and English Electric Lightning.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, the rapid improvements in design led to most air-superiority and multirole fighters, such as the Grumman F-14 Tomcat and McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle, having the performance to take on the point defense interception role, and the strategic threat moved from bombers to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Dedicated interceptor designs became rare, with the only widely used examples designed after the 1960s being the Panavia Tornado ADV, Mikoyan MiG-25, Mikoyan MiG-31, and the Shenyang J-8.


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