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    The Myths and Realities of Modern Fighter Jet Armor

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    USA. FLORIDA. MIAMI BEACH. MAY 2019: USAF A-10 THUNDERBOLT II. DEMONSTRATION FLIGHT
    USA. FLORIDA. MIAMI BEACH. MAY 2019: USAF A-10 THUNDERBOLT II. DEMONSTRATION FLIGHT

    Modern fighter jets, while embodying the pinnacle of technology and agility, do not possess the “bulletproof” armor one might expect from the marvels of military aviation.

    USA. FLORIDA. MIAMI BEACH. MAY 2019: USAF A-10 THUNDERBOLT II. DEMONSTRATION FLIGHT
    USA. FLORIDA. MIAMI BEACH. MAY 2019: USAF A-10 THUNDERBOLT II. DEMONSTRATION FLIGHT

    The evolution of aerial combat and the advancement of weaponry have largely rendered the concept of armoring these high-speed aircraft obsolete, except for some specialized ground attack planes.

    Sukhoi Su-25” by Dmitry Terekhov is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

    From the outset, it’s crucial to clarify that the majority of modern fighter jets forgo traditional armor plating. The rationale behind this design choice is grounded in aerodynamic performance—speed and maneuverability take precedence over armor.

    Sukhoi Su-25 of the Russian Air Force landing at Vladivostok (8683076150)” by Fedor Leukhin is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

    The heavy metal required to shield an aircraft from projectiles would severely hamper its ability to perform in the skies, rendering it less competitive in the ever-advancing theater of aerial warfare.

    USA. FLORIDA. MIAMI BEACH. MAY 2019: USAF A-10 THUNDERBOLT II. DEMONSTRATION FLIGHT
    USA. FLORIDA. MIAMI BEACH. MAY 2019: USAF A-10 THUNDERBOLT II. DEMONSTRATION FLIGHT

    In the case of specific ground-attack aircraft, such as the A-10 Thunderbolt II and the Russian Su-25, a different approach is adopted. These subsonic aircraft, designed to fly closer to the ground and therefore within the range of small arms fire, integrate features aimed at protecting the pilot.

    Chicago, IL - August 20th, 2017: An F-22 Raptor, P-51 Mustang and A-10 Thunderbolt II plane fly together over the city for the heritage pass during the annual Air and Water show.
    Chicago, IL – August 20th, 2017: An F-22 Raptor, P-51 Mustang and A-10 Thunderbolt II plane fly together over the city for the heritage pass during the annual Air and Water show.

    For instance, the cockpit of the A-10 is protected by a 1,200-pound titanium shell called a ‘bathtub.’ During testing, the bathtub could withstand direct hits from 23 mm canon fire and indirect hits from 57 mm shell fragments.

    KONYA, TURKIYE - JUNE 30, 2022: Azerbaijani Air Force Sukhoi Su-25 Frogfoot taxiing in Konya Airport during Anatolian Eagle Air Force Exercise
    KONYA, TURKIYE – JUNE 30, 2022: Azerbaijani Air Force Sukhoi Su-25 Frogfoot taxiing in Konya Airport during Anatolian Eagle Air Force Exercise

    Russia’s Sukhoi Su-25, on the other hand, utilizes a titanium shell of similar design to shield its pilots from ground-based threats.

    MOSCOW, RUSSIA - MAY 4, 2019: Sukhoi Su-25 jet fighters take part in preparation for Victory Day (Den Pobedy) airshow
    MOSCOW, RUSSIA – MAY 4, 2019: Sukhoi Su-25 jet fighters take part in preparation for Victory Day (Den Pobedy) airshow

    However, this level of protection is an exception rather than a rule. As World War Two progressed, aircraft started to incorporate more protective measures, such as armored plates and reinforced cockpit glass. But with the advent of surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles, the landscape of aerial combat shifted dramatically.

    Konya Turkey JUNE, 29, 2022 Military pilot in the cockpit of a cold war era russian bomber plane. Sukhoi Su-25 Frogfoot of Azerbaijani Air Forces
    Konya Turkey JUNE, 29, 2022 Military pilot in the cockpit of a cold war era russian bomber plane. Sukhoi Su-25 Frogfoot of Azerbaijani Air Forces

    The inefficiency of anti-aircraft guns against high-flying, fast-moving targets led to the development of missiles like the S-25 Berkut and the AIM-9B Sidewinder, which rendered traditional armor ineffective against the high-velocity impacts they could deliver.

    Las Vegas, United States - 15.11.2019 F-16 Fighting Falcon in flight during the Aviation Nation Airshow in Nellis Air Force Base in 15.11.2019 in Las Vegas, United States
    Las Vegas, United States – 15.11.2019 F-16 Fighting Falcon in flight during the Aviation Nation Airshow in Nellis Air Force Base in 15.11.2019 in Las Vegas, United States

    Moreover, the redundancy of systems has become a preferred method of ensuring survivability in modern jets.

    F 16 block 52 plus
    F 16 block 52 plus

    As an example, the F-16, known for its roles in ground support missions, employs multiple flight computers and redundant hydraulic systems, though it lacks armor plating.

    Belgium, Kleine-Brogel - 9.9.2018 Danish Air Force F-16 display during the Belgian Air Force Days 9.9.2018 in Kleine-Brogel, Belgium
    Belgium, Kleine-Brogel – 9.9.2018 Danish Air Force F-16 display during the Belgian Air Force Days 9.9.2018 in Kleine-Brogel, Belgium

    It’s designed to endure system failures rather than direct hits from enemy fire.

    Russian Knights demonstration flights. Russia, Moscow, airport Zhukovsky. July 22, 2017
    Russian Knights demonstration flights. Russia, Moscow, airport Zhukovsky. July 22, 2017

    Similarly, the heavy S-400 surface-to-air missile uses a fragmentation warhead that operates at hypervelocity impacts, where mass and function outweigh the benefits of armor.

    Novosibirsk, Russia, July 31, 2016, Mochishche airfield, local air show, Aerobatic team VKS "Russian Falcons" Su-30 SM, four russian fighter aircrafts in the blue coudy sky
    Novosibirsk, Russia, July 31, 2016, Mochishche airfield, local air show, Aerobatic team VKS “Russian Falcons” Su-30 SM, four russian fighter aircrafts in the blue coudy sky

    As a result, most modern fighter aircraft do not incorporate comprehensive armor protection. Instead, redundancy in critical systems and high-speed maneuverability provide a different kind of defense.

    Novosibirsk, Russia, July 31, 2016, Mochishche airfield, local air show, Aerobatic team VKS "Russian Falcons" Su-30 SM, four russian fighter aircrafts in the cloudy sky
    Novosibirsk, Russia, July 31, 2016, Mochishche airfield, local air show, Aerobatic team VKS “Russian Falcons” Su-30 SM, four russian fighter aircrafts in the cloudy sky

    The Su-27 family, for instance, includes an armor plate between its engines to prevent one from damaging the other in the event of a hit. Close Air Support aircraft also incorporate some armor for the pilot due to their vulnerability to ground fire.

    Relevant articles:
    Are Modern Fighter Jets Bulletproof?, Simple Flying
    Does the F-16 have any armor at all?, stackexchange.com
    Are modern fighter jets bulletproof and armored?, Aviation Stack Exchange, Feb 1, 2019

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