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A German Bf 110G-4 night fighter at the RAF Museum in London.

A night fighter (also all-weather fighter or all-weather interceptor) is a fighter aircraft adapted for use at night or in other times of bad visibility. Originally these were large twin-engine fighters such as the Messerschmitt Bf 110 or small bombers fitted with radar antennas which were meant to be used against large bombers. In the jet age, these were generally two-seat fighters with a radar operator, a large search radar, and eventually radar-guided missiles. Automation with ground radars permitted the design of single-seat interceptors such as the F-102 which was armed with rockets, Falcon and Genie missiles. In the US Navy of the late 1950s, all-weather missile-armed fighters such as the F3H Demon generally were slower and less maneuverable than day fighters such as the F-8 Crusader which were armed with guns and heat seeking missiles to engage other fighters rather than bombers.

During the Vietnam War, the large F-4 Phantom was among the first supersonic all-weather fighters that had sufficient performance and versatility to not only shoot down bombers, but also handle the task of daylight air superiority against nimble MiG fighters, with a secondary ground strike role as well. Dedicated strike types such as the F-105 lacked both radar guided missiles and agility in air combat, while dedicated interceptors like the F-102 and abandoned F-111B were not found to be effective in other roles. The next generation F-14 and F-15 combined all weather capability with high agility where the Phantom was still weak compared to smaller fighters.

With the decrease in size and expense of sophisticated electronics and computers, all but the smallest and least expensive fighters today are agile multi-role fighters like the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Equipped with powerful and flexible multi-mode radars and radar-guided missiles such as the AIM-120 AMRAAM, most modern fighters incorporate the night fighter's ability to find and intercept targets in the air with the capability to engage in a visual dogfight or attack targets on the ground in any weather with a crew of one or two.

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History

While normal daylight fighters were sometimes used at night with only available light, night fighters came into their own during World War II, made possible with the advent of airborne radar. Prior to that, the main components of air defence at night were searchlights and anti-aircraft artillery, along with blackout precautions. After the War night fighters have declined in importance as a separate class due to a general increase in night-fighting capability amongst all fighters.

This role typically required the use of radar, aerodrome beacons as well as direction finders to find the airbase at night and various communications equipment and lighting inside the cockpit. This much gear normally required a twin-engine aircraft to lift it, notably because this left the nose area of the aircraft clear for the radar installation, where the engine would be in a single-engine design. Many night fighters were converted from earlier heavy fighter designs and some from bombers; examples include the Bristol Beaufighter and the de Havilland Mosquito. Some were designed specifically as a nightfighter, as in the P-61 Black Widow.

During World War II the Luftwaffe also experimented with single-engine aircraft in this role which they referred to as Wilde Sau (wild boar). In this case the fighters, typically Focke-Wulf Fw 190s, were equipped only with a direction finder and landing lights. In order to find their targets other aircraft, guided from the ground would drop strings of flares in front of the bombers or simply wait for them to fly over burning cities. The U.S. Navy fitted radar sets to the wings of its single-engined F6F Hellcat fighters by the close of the war, operating them successfully in the Pacific.

Night fighters existed as a separate class into the 1960s. As aircraft grew in capability, radar-equipped interceptors could take on the role of night fighters and the class went into decline. Examples of these latter-day interceptor/night-fighters include the Avro Arrow, Convair F-106 Delta Dart and the English Electric Lightning. Aircraft development has blurred this line further, to a point where interceptors have been supplanted by conventional designs. The only design remaining in service within this niche is the Russian MiG-31. Until its retirement the US Navy's F-14 Tomcat filled a similar role. In both cases they need to support operations at very long ranges – in the oceans for the American aircraft carriers and across Siberia for the Russians – which cannot be filled by smaller aircraft.

World War I

World War II

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Germany

Italy

Imperial Japan

Soviet Union

United Kingdom

United States

Korean War

Canada

United States

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