An interceptor aircraft (or simply interceptor) is a type of fighter aircraft designed specifically to intercept and destroy enemy aircraft, particularly bombers, usually relying on great speed. A number of such aircraft were built in the period starting just prior to World War II and ending in the late 1960s, when they became less important due to the shifting of the strategic bombing role to Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs).
There are two types of interceptors, emphasizing different aspects of performance. Point defense interceptors were the first type, designed to take off and climb as quickly as possible to the attacking aircraft's altitude. This was a necessity in the era of relatively short range radar, which meant defenders had very short warning times before having to engage the enemy. Area defense interceptors are larger designs intended to protect a much larger area from attack. These were important only during the Cold War, when the US and USSR needed to provide a defense over their respective large land areas.
Both types of aircraft sacrifice performance in the air superiority fighter role (i.e., fighting enemy fighter aircraft) by tuning their performance for either fast climbs or high speeds, respectively. The result is that interceptors often look very impressive on paper, typically outrunning, outclimbing and outgunning less specialized fighter designs. Yet they tend to fare poorly in combat against those same "less capable" designs due to limited maneuverability.
In the 1970s, the utility of interceptors waned as the role became blurred into the roles of the heavy air superiority fighters dominant in military thinking at the time. In addition, it is arguable that the change of the great threat of the era — nuclear weapons that were carried on bombers being moved to various missile systems — left the interceptor-style aircraft without its primary target. Today interceptor missions are generally relegated to "mainline" fighters; for instance, the US Air Force bases its defense on its F-15 and F-16 fighters. The exceptions are the USSR, who maintained a number of dedicated interceptors in order to provide coverage over its huge and little inhabited coastline, and, perhaps oddly, the UK, who introduced a fleet of modified Panavia Tornados in the 1980s and continued to use them while awaiting the introduction of the Eurofighter Typhoon in 2005. The Eurofighter Typhoon has now replaced the role of an interceptor and the Tornado is now used for air superiority and attack.
Point defense interceptors, usually of European origin, are designed to defend specific targets. They are designed to take off and climb to altitude as quickly as possible, destroy any incoming threats, and then land. A particularly extreme example of a point defense interceptor is the rocket-powered Bachem Ba 349.
At the start of the Second World War, most single engine fighters were "short-legged", with limited internal fuel capacity. These were not designed specifically as interceptors, but the long-range bomber escort role had not been envisaged. This proved to be a critical problem for German single-engined fighters (essentially, only one design at that time, the Bf 109), during the Battle of Britain, which could escort bombers across the channel, but only had sufficient fuel for a few minutes of combat if they were also to return to their airfields in France. At this stage, the similar limitation of British single-engined fighters was less of a problem for the defending Royal Air Force (RAF).
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