Fighter aircraft are fixed-wing military aircraft designed primarily for air-to-air combat. In military conflict, the role of fighter aircraft is to establish air superiority of the battlespace. Domination of the airspace above a battlefield permits bombers and attack aircraft to engage in tactical and strategic bombing of enemy targets. The key performance features of a fighter include not only its firepower but also its high speed and maneuverability relative to the target aircraft. The success or failure of a combatant's efforts to gain air superiority hinges on several factors including the skill of its pilots, the tactical soundness of its doctrine for deploying its fighters, and the numbers and performance of those fighters. Many modern fighter aircraft also have secondary capabilities such as ground attack and some types, such as fighter-bombers, are designed from the outset for dual roles. Other fighter designs are highly specialized while still filling the main air superiority role, and these include the interceptor, heavy fighter, and night fighter.
A fighter aircraft is primarily designed for air-to-air combat. A given type may be designed for specific combat conditions, and in some cases for additional roles such as air-to-ground fighting. Historically the British Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force referred to them as "scouts" until the early 1920s, while the U.S. Army called them "pursuit" aircraft until the late 1940s. The UK changed to calling them fighters in the 1920s, while the US Army did so in the 1940s. A short-range fighter designed to defend against incoming enemy aircraft is known as an interceptor. Recognized classes of fighter include: Air superiority fighter Fighter-bomber Heavy fighter Interceptor Light fighter All-weather fighter (including the night fighter) Reconnaissance fighter Strategic fighter (including the escort fighter and strike fighter)
Since World War I, achieving and maintaining air superiority has been considered essential for victory in conventional warfare. Fighters continued to be developed throughout World War I, to deny enemy aircraft and dirigibles the ability to gather information by reconnaissance over the battlefield. Early fighters were very small and lightly armed by later standards, and most were biplanes built with a wooden frame covered with fabric, and a maximum airspeed of about 100 mph (160 km/h). As control of the airspace over armies became increasingly important, all of the major powers developed fighters to support their military operations. Between the wars, wood was largely replaced in part or whole by metal tubing, and finally aluminum stressed skin structures (monocoque) began to predominate. By World War II, most fighters were all-metal monoplanes armed with batteries of machine guns or cannons and some were capable of speeds approaching 400 mph (640 km/h). Most fighters up to this point had one engine, but a number of twin-engine fighters were built; however they were found to be outmatched against single-engine fighters and were relegated to other tasks, such as night fighters equipped with primitive radar sets.