Skip to comments.Battle of the SuperFighters: F-14D Tomcat v. F/A-18E/F Super Hornet
Posted on 04/19/2002 8:10:01 AM PDT by LSUfan
BATTLE OF THE SUPERFIGHTERS
Two Experts Say the Super Hornet isn't so Super
Editors' note: every airplane that goes into service is accompanied by controversy. This is especially true of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Our two experts argue that the Super Hornet is not necessarily the airplane the Navy needs for the future, and their backgrounds lend weight to their arguments. Rear Adm. Paul Gillcrist U.S. Navy (Ret.) spent 33 years as a fighter pilot and wing commander and was operations commander of all Pacific Fleet fighters. Bob Kress is an aeronautical engineer and, during his long career at Grumman, he was directly involved in the development of a wide range of fighters. He was the Engineering Manager for the original design and development of the F-14 Tomcat. Their analysis makes an interesting statement when placed against the background of the war on terrorism.
The requirements for a practical deep interdiction fighter/bomber have long been the subject of controversy within the naval aviation community, especially when it comes to the F-14 Tomcat versus the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Often, however, the definition of deep interdiction is changed to fit the aircraft under discussion, rather than taking into account the real-world theater of operations for which it is destined.
Events over Afghanistan, however, have forced us to formalize what is really needed if an aircraft is to strike an enemy deep within its country. Today, we know that the politics of surrounding countries can dictate mission distances that stretch the ability of current aircraft to their limits.
The U.S. relies on Navy aircraft carriers as bases. So, when putting fighter/ bombers over Afghan targets, which aircraft led the charge?the tried-and-true F-14 Tomcat with the F/A-18 Hornet well behind.
This particular conflict motivated us to address what we see as a serious problem concerning Naval aviation assets and the realities of the fields over which we will fight.
As shown over Afghanistan, there are four basic requirements of any carrier strike force:
Reach the target.
Don't get shot down by SAMs, AAA, or enemy fighters.
Strike the target.
Return to the carrier before running out of gas.
Within these four seemingly simple rules are the needs for an airplane to have a long range while carrying sufficient munitions to hammer a target and still be able to fight its way through enemy aircraft and AAA threats.
An Afghanistan scenario
Because our government isn't telling us all of its secrets, we'll have to make some assumptions when using Afghanistan as an example. It is, however, obvious that reaching the target presents a great challenge. To avoid Silkworm-class missiles, the carrier battle group probably would not want to venture north of a line joining Masqat, Oman and Ahmadabad, Pakistan. Along this line, the group would be somewhat west of Karachi. Reaching Kabul would require a one-way flight of roughly 825 statute miles. Assuming the use of S-3 tankers, an F-14 strike, refueling somewhere between Quetta and Sukkur, Pakistan, wouldn't have any trouble attacking targets in the northernmost parts of Afghanistan. If, however, an F/A-18E/F refuels in the same spot, it will barely make it to Kabul. The un-refueled radius of an F-14 carrying the normal strike load (four 2,000-pound LGBs, two HARM missiles and two Sidewinders plus 675 rounds of 20mm and two, 280-gallon external tanks) is at least 500 statute miles. Accompanying E/F Super Hornets have only a 350-statute-mile radius carrying about half the bomb load. To complete the picture of mission distances, the S-3s would have to dash back to the CVs, hot-refuel and meet the raid coming out of Afghanistan, which would be much in need of JP-4 cocktails.
Why are we nit picking over mission details? Easy! At the beginning of the studies that led to this article, we were convinced that the Afghan campaign would be an all-USAF show, and that would lead to questions of carrier-fleet effectiveness. But map studies combined with knowledge of geopolitical restrictions showed that carrier assets, primarily the F-14, were just about the U.S.'s only option. This has clearly been substantiated by events.
Of course, the F-14s were not the first to hit targets in Afghanistan; B-2 stealth bombers each carried 16, 2,000-pound GPS-guided bombs. They flew from Whiteman AFB in Missouria 33-hour round trip. Further, big-time USAF strategic air assetsB-52s and B-1sarrived shortly afterward.
It was soon apparent that USAF tactical aircraft were not being used in Afghanistan. We found that, even given unlimited in-flight tanker refueling, the USAF F-15 and F-16 could not be used without a Middle Eastern ground base. Turkish bases were simply too far away and would require refueling over hostile areas. Only the use of tactical air bases in Turkmenistan and/or Uzbekistan would work, and this would allow only partial coverage of Afghanistan.
The big question becomes: does the Navy have the assets to be able to carry this kind of war into the future, and what kind of planning is in place? To cut to the chase, the discussion once again reverts to whether or not the new Super Hornet will really cut the mustard or the Navy has taken yet another wrong turn that will cost us dearly on the battlefield.
A History of Naval Aviation difficulties
The subject of the erosion of Naval aviation has nagged both of us ever since the cancellation of the A-12 program by the Secretary of Defense in the late '80s. It was a watershed for a number of reasons, not the least of which was a level of bad management that hadn't been seen in the Pentagon for decades! We can look back on that day and clearly see that the unraveling of the fabric of Naval aviation would become a long-term trend. Neither of us contends that the A-12, as envisioned by Navy leaders, was the right airplane to develop at that point in history; in fact, it wasn't! That, however, is another story for another time.
We have put off writing this article simply because we know it is likely to ruffle many feathers in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, but events in Afghanistan again brought our main arguments into focus. Is writing this kind of article worth it, we wondered; we might be seen to be piling it on when the Navy is in difficulty and clearly on a steep, downhill slide. Well, we have listened, with no small restraint, to the pontifications that justify how well the Navy is doing with its favorite program, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornetdespite unimpeachable reports to the contrary from the guys in the fleet; comments made to us by young fleet pilots who have flown the airplane and describe it as a dog carry much more weight with us than statements from senior officers and civilians higher in the food chain. But certain pontifications in a statement by a senior Naval officer who should have known better served as the last straw.
The pronouncement appeared along with a spate of triumphal announcements that celebrated the successful completion of the Super Hornet's first operational evaluation (OPEVAL). In a publication called Inside Washington, the Navy's director of operational testing is quoted as saying that the Super Hornet was superior to its earlier models in every category but three: acceleration, maximum speed and sustained turning performance. This pronouncement boggled our minds because these are the very performance capabilities that determine a tactical airplane's survival. Then, as if to justify this hand grenade, the officer is quoted as stating that the Navy has sacrificed speed in the Super Hornet for other beneficial capabilities, and he asserts, brute speed is no longer the discriminator it once was when the benchmark was the Soviet threat. It is clear to us that this Naval officer doesn't have a clue about aerial combat and the importance of total energy in the complex equations of energy maneuverability. Nor does he seem to understand that Third World countries all around the globe are purchasing the very latest operational Russian-built fighters that are also licensed for production in China. The Russian aerial threat still exists; what has changed is that the pilots aren't Russians.
As a nation, we have always had the means to protect our own global interests as well as those of other countries. Short of nuclear war, the carrier battle groups have been able to strike on very short notice. A President's first question in time of crisis is often, Where are the carriers?
F-14s carry a major punch
With a layered defense, including air assets, guided-missile cruisers and frigates and undersea backing, the carrier battle groups are pretty well invulnerable. On the Nimitz-class carrier, we see the F-14a truly long-range fighter/bomberplus lightweight F/A-18A fighter/bombers. The long-range A-6 bomber has gone forever, but its derivative, the EA-6B Electronic War-fare (EW) aircraft is in place and is in much demand by both the USN and the USAF. This country's Desert Fox and Kosovo experiences have, at lastand correctlyshifted the focus away from stealth and toward electronic warfare. We will have more to say on this important topic in a subsequent article. In short, at the moment, the deck complement looks adequate. The F-14 can pick up the A-6 role because it was designed to do so from scratch. Its performance in Kosovo as a very effective strike leader has more than borne out that fact. With LANTIRN, night-vision devices and synthetic aperture A/G radar, the F-14 targeted not only its own four 2,000-pound weapons but also the ordnance of the F/A-18s, which don't have such capable sensors.
An interesting comparison can be made to quantify the F-14's strike effectiveness. Compare one F-14 and one B-2 bomber during a two-night (33-hour) mission in Kosovo. In reactive situations (no foreign base), the B-2 operates from the U.S. (lack of overseas B-2 basing is a serious constraint and there are only a limited number of B-2s to begin with). The chart shows the weapons deliveredU.S. to Kosovo and backfor the B-2 and the F-14D.
33-hour-mission strike effectiveness
No. of 2,000 lb. bombs 16 4
Mission time (hours) 33 3+
No. of missions 1 5
No. of bombs delivered 16 20
First bombs on target (hours) 16.5 2
The F-14 will be replaced by the F/A-18E Super Hornet, which attempts deep-interdiction missions. Though it's a whizzy little airshow performer with a nice, modern cockpit, it has only 36 percent of the F-14's payload/range capability. The F/A-18E Super Hornet has been improved but still has, at best, 50 percent of the F-14's capability to deliver a fixed number of bombs (in pounds) on target. This naturally means that the carrier radius of influence drops to 50 percent of what it would have been with the same number of F-14s. As a result, the area of influence (not radius) drops to 23 percent! No wonder the USN is working on buddy tanker versions of the Super Hornet.
By the way, now that the A-6 tanker has gone, how will the Hornets get to deep-interdiction targets? Contrary to what we're officially told, a tanker variant of the Hornet is simply not the answer. In an attempt to make it supersonic, the F-18E has been given a low aspect ratio, razor blade of a wing. This hurts subsonic drag and carrier takeoff payload when compared with a KA-6 tanker, which is an aerodynamically efficient solution. Equally silly is the proposal for an EW version of the F-18E. The same aerodynamic reasons apply for this airplane, plus it has an external stores dilemma. To get sufficient range to support a deep-interdiction mission, the EF-18E would have to use up precious external store stations with fuel tanks rather than ECM pods as carried on the EA-6B. Perhaps the Navy should consider putting the EA-6B back into upgraded and modernized production and build some of them as tankers? Or more Super A-6s?
As this is being written, it is too early to comment in an informed manner on the war on terrorism in Afghanistan. The USAF heavy bomber raids are fully public. However, it is evident that USN carrier strike groups that consist of F-14s and F-18s are conducting the tactical raids. A study of maps shows that CVN airborne S-3 tankers facilitate the conduct of these raids by refueling, probably over Pakistan. At this time, USAF tactical air assets do not have bases close enough to Afghanistan to allow airborne refueling over friendly nations. By the time this finds its way in-to print, that may have changed.
Reported Super Hornet problems
Although the Navy has been working very hard to correct F/A-18E/F OPEVAL problems, it is worth summing them up: the production F/A-18E/F is significantly overweight with respect to its specifications (3,000 pounds over). This is far in excess of what one would expect for a variant of an existing F/A-18A, B, C, or D. Aircraft weight estimation methods could, and should, have been much better; in fact, when we look objectively at the F/A-18E/F, we see an airplane with a brand-new wing, new fuselage and new empennagein other words, a new airplane. This is, therefore, what Congress would call a new start. Both Congress and the Dept. of Defense (DoD) had to be looking the other way when the Navy was permitted to slip this airplane by as a simple modification of an existing airplane.
In combat-maneuvering flight, the aircraft had severe wing-drop problems that defied resolution, despite the use of every aerodynamic analytical tool available. Eventually, one test pilot came up with a leaky-fold-joint fix that opened chordwise air slots to aspirate the wing's upper surface flow and thereby prevent the sharp stalling of one wing before the other. They stalled more or less together, but much earlier and more severely than before. This new fix is what the aerodynamicists call a band aid. It causes aircraft buffeting, which is generally a source of wing drag. But a fix that combined acceptable wing drop with acceptable buffeting had been achieved. One test pilot commented dryly, I'd like the buffeting levels to be a little lower so I could read the heads-up display!
Owing to its high drag and weight (and probably other factors), the F/A-18E is significantly poorer in acceleration than the F/A-18A. Also, its combat ceiling is substantially lower, and its transonic drag rise is very high. We have stayed in touch with some pilots at the Navy's test center and have gathered some mind-boggling anecdotal information. Here are some examples:
An F/A-18A was used to chase an F-14D test flight. The F-14D was carrying four 2,000-pound bombs, two 280-gallon drop tanks, two HARM missiles and two Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. The chase airplane was in a relatively clean configuration with only a centerline fuel tank. At the end of each test flight, the chase airplane was several miles behind the test airplane when the chase airplane reached bingo fuel and had to return to base.
An F/A-18E Super Hornet is tested using the same chase airplane, an earlier model Hornet, in the same configuration. The chase airplane does not need full thrust to stay with the test airplane.
An F/A-18E/F in maximum afterburner thrust cannot exceed Mach 1.0 in level flight below 10,000 feet even when it is in the clean configuration (no external stores). At 10,000 feet, the F-14D can exceed Mach 1.6.
A quote from a Hornet pilot is devastatingly frank: The aircraft is slower than most fighters fielded since the early 1960s.
The most devastating comment came from a Hornet pilot who flew numerous side-by-side comparison flights with F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and says: We outran them, we out-flew them and we ran them out of gas. I was embarrassed for them.
Updating the F-14
In the January 1991 issue of Naval Aviation, an article reminded us of some history: After the dive/bomber became a naval aircraft type in the mid-1930s, fighters were designed primarily as gun platforms. However, the strength and power that characterized the F4U and F6F enabled them to be readily modified to fighter/ bombers. Each could carry forward-firing rockets, two 1,000-pound bombs or a droppable fuel tank. The proportion of fighters assigned to fast carriers increased steadily from 25 percent of complement in 1942 to 50 percent in 1944 to 70 percent in 1945. The dual role made this great increase in air-to-air combat power possible with little loss in carrier air-to-surface capability.
How about a Hellcat II, aka Tomcat II? The first order of business would be to resurrect as many retired F-14s (of any configuration) as we can. Second, combine these with fleet F-14As, the remaining F-14As and even the Iranian F-14 assets that might be obtainable (Iran took delivery of approximately 80 F-14s under the Shah; about 30 are still airworthy). Third, design a program to upgrade all of these aircraft to F-14Ds. This may sound wild, but Grumman experience in restoring Malaysian A4D basket cases to mint condition in the '80s was very successful, and they were not even Grumman airplanes! Similar success in restoring fleet A-6s at Grumman's St. Augustine, Florida, facility was achieved. It would be appropriate for the Navy or DoD to launch a study by a blue ribbon team under the aegis of NAVAIR. We estimate that about 200 additional F-14s could be brought back into the fleet. The titanium box beams and bulkheads are nearly indestructible as well as repairable using electron-beam welding; but this is not yet a Tomcat II.
Buying time with these programs would allow the convening of a design teamagain led by NAVAIRof contractor personnel, MIT scientists and other university help to study the cost of building new F-14s. We think the following design changes to the F-14 are achievable for a new baseline airplane and later for block change improvements:
1. Increase high-value-weapon bring-back capability; this would mean that the F-14, carrying heavy stores, would hit the arresting gear too fast. We could conclude that a bigger wing with more powerful high-lift flaps and slats is required, but fly-by-wire systems allow a more elegant solution.
2. With flaps down, the basic F-14 needs a down tail load to trim out the flap nose-down pitching moment. Allowing the aircraft to fly slightly unstable in pitch, now enabled by fly-by-wire technology, suggests the use of a canard or an enlarged, fixed glove vane as on the F-14A/B, which would produce uploads and relieve the down tail loads.
3. The net result of these changes is that an increase of 4,500 pounds in bring-back store weight could be allowed; this is equivalent to a decrease in approach speed of 12 knots. The relief of down tail loads also solves an aft fuselage maneuvering fatigue problem and brings an air combat maneuvering lift increase of 19 percent. Turning (lift to drag) is also improved by relieving down tail loads. This change could be readily achieved because no primary structure is involved. A further plus of this design change would be that the aircraft's internal fuel capacity could be increased.
4. We appreciate the value of staying with a variable-sweep designespecially for the podded, twin-engine F-14. First, we could have a carrier aircraft with landing speeds in the order of 130 knots versus the F-4 Phantom at 145 knots. At the other end, the mission payload/range is greatly increased by flying unswept, as is air combat maneuvering. Why the latter? Because dedicated air combat occurs at below about Mach 0.8 because of high turning dragan arena in which the F-14's 20-degree sweep is optimal. And, of course, the F-14 has been to Mach 2.51 with four Sparrows loaded at 68 degrees of wing sweep. The F-14B/D have been flown to Mach 1.35 at 5,000 feet (813 knots IAS), at which point the throttle had to be retarded to avoid over-speed.
5. The F-14 longitudinal flight-control system will have to be redesigned to cope with the level of instability induced by the larger glove, which is minus five percent in clean flight and minus 13 percent flaps down at the most aft CG. This is no big deal and, in fact, it may be within the capability of the existing F-14 bobweight system that tolerates some longitudinal instability. For reference, the Grumman X-29 was 45 percent unstable!
6. The F-14 should have some reasonable stealth-enhancing additionssensible stealth as we used to call itwhich would have practically no impact on weight or performance! A lot of work was done to this end in around 1990; it included full-scale tests on real F-14s. Some radar-signature experts know exactly what should be done. Comparing the basic radar signatures, the F-14 has a slight fundamental disadvantage: it is larger. Its tunnel-mounted attack stores make, however, virtually no contribution to its signature, and it does not carry a forest of wing tanks and weapons on long-range strike missions (this also keeps its signature down).
The baseline F-14D production aircraft defined above would allow these carefully considered modifications:
1. The installation of the F-119 or the F-120 engines. The F-119 has already been checked for fit. Upgrades of the GE F-110 might also be viable. The objective would be a 40,000-pound class turbofan.
2. The installation of two-axis, vectorable, axially symmetric engine nozzles for super augmented pitch, roll and yaw control.
3. The installation of UHF antennas that would be embedded in the increased-chord leading-edge slats to allow the onboard detection and tracking of stealthy adversaries. Low-frequency radar works well against low-radar-cross-section objects. Arrays like this were tested at Grumman around 1990.
In 1990, Grumman defined many versions of what it thought the F-14D could be. It was somewhat overdone in the stealth arena, but it incorporates most of the aforementioned ideas with very little design change or combat penalty. All of the changes are cosmetic tin and not basic to the structure.
A word on aircraft design
Just as commercial airliners are reaching their design limitations as fighter designs have matured, they, too, have encountered the limits imposed by the laws of physics. Fighters and airliners are in the same situation, but fighters include a couple of extra dimensions. For instance, a choice has to be made between supersonic flight and subsonic combat maneuvering and cruise efficiency. The same is true of stealth versus electronic warfare. Pick one and design toward it. If you want a V/STOL, design one, but don't try to make it into a tri-service fighter/bomber.
If you want a long-lasting, long-range fighter/bomber, design it from scratch for the mission as a new or upgraded designpreferably the latter. Then equip it with modern weapons, sensors, surveillance, communications and EW. Let the sensors and computerson board and remotegive the crew complete knowledge of the situation in the volume of air they are trying to dominate and also suggest the best plays.
The electronics will continue to advance rapidly to provide capabilities that are now only dimly perceived, but the basic airplane, regardless of who designs it, is quickly approaching the best that it can be. In the meantime, remember to give the crew IR missiles and a Gatling gun for those times at which Murphy intervenes and high-tech warfare once again deteriorates to the usual groveling dogfight.
The bottom line is that, unless aircraft like the F-14 continue to be on board, U.S. Navy aircraft carriers will be deployed with low capability aircraft on their flight decks, most of those being versions of the Hornet and the Super Hornet. Despite all protests to the contrary, with regard to standoff munitions and precision guided weapons, our carrier battle forces will not have the pulverizing power of their 1980s counterparts. When that time arrives, it will be the beginning of the end for carrier forces as we know them todayand the end of their rapid availability to the President in times of need.
The future of NAVAIR
In 1975, an A-7 Corsair II was mounted on a pedestal outside the now closed Navy Master Jet Base, Cecil Field, Florida. On the base of the pedestal was a large bronze plaque bearing the inscription: The main battery of the fleet. The battle groups in those daysequipped with Corsair IIs and A-6 Intruderscould truly kick ass and take names. Those days may be overprobably foreverunless strong USN action is taken. We can learn major lessons from our past. Let's hope the Navy and the politicians remember to apply these lessons to the future.
So Mr. President, ask not what your carriers can do for you but what you can do for your carriers.
In 1951, Bob Kress joined Grumman, where he worked on the F9F-6, XF10F-1 and F11F-1, the proposed STOL ASW flying boats and the Army Mohawk Observation Aircraft; he also helped to design STOL and VTOL aircraft and the TFX. He managed LM Systems Simulation for the lunar module and was project engineer for LM Guidance Navigation and Control. From the F-14A's inception until 1971, he was the program's engineering manager, after which he was appointed F-14 deputy development program manager.
Adm. Paul Gillcrist served 33 years as a Navy carrier pilot and retired in 1985 as a rear admiral. His cruise box contains a pilot's logbook that lists more than 6,000 flight hours in 75 different types of airplane, 962 arrested landings on 16 aircraft carriers and 167 combat missions flown in an F-8 Crusader in the Tonkin Gulf (for which he earned 17 combat awards). He has commanded a fighter squadron and a carrier wing, and at one time, he was in operational control of all Pacific Fleet fighter squadrons.
Uh huh. Nope.
F18 started out as a compromise and got worse, I think the Navy was hoping for F16 like capability but the twin engine requirement put the nail in that coffin.
Maybe JSF will fix everything! In the meantime, keep your fingers crossed for the Super Hornet drivers....although on balance I think more F14's make the news for aviation mishaps.
I'm no fan of the F18. If I remember correctly, when McD lost the fighter contest to the F16, McD put carrier goodies on their loser and seduced the Navy into thinking the F18 was the short term answer to all things, the mismanaged doomed A12 being the long term answer.
Anyone out there corroborate this? Or tell me what really happened?
I really hope they do start up F-14 production again; I thought it was a mistake to stop making them in the first place.
A Light Weight Fighter (LWF) program came into being under Packard's watch. A Request For Proposals (RFP) was issued to the industry on January 16, 1971. The RFP called for a high thrust-to-weight ratio, a gross weight of less than 20,000 pounds, and high maneuverability. No attempt was to be made to equal the performance of the MiG-25 Foxbat, the emphasis being on what was thought to be the most-likely conditions of future air combat--battles at altitudes of 30,000-40,000 feet and speeds of Mach 0.6 to Mach 1.6. Emphasis was to be on turn rate, acceleration, and range rather than on high speed. A small size was stressed, since the small size of MiG-17 and MiG-21 had made them difficult to detect visually during combat over North Vietnam. The RFP specified three main objectives. The aircraft should fully explore the advantages of emerging technologies, reduce the risk and uncertainties involved in full-scale development and production, and provide a variety of technological options to meet future military hardware needs.
Northrop believed that it had the basis for an entry in the LWF contest in its P-530 Cobra project, which had so far failed to attract any customers. Its entry was given the company designation of P-600. Externally, the P-600 was almost identical to the 1971 form of the P-530 Cobra. However, the P-530 had always been envisaged as a multi-role aircraft with a significant air-to-ground capability, whereas the P-600 was to be purely an air-to-air demonstrator with no armament except a gun and a Sidewinder missile at each wingtip.
The P-600 was to be powered by a pair of General Electric YJ101-GE-100 turbofans rated at 15,000 lb.s.t. each with afterburning. The J101 was a development of the GE15 engine that had been proposed for the P-530. The two engines were mounted close together to minimize the asymmetric effects in the event of an engine loss. The maximum takeoff weight of the P-600 was initially only 21,000 pounds, but it soon grew to 23,000 pounds. The landing gear was much simpler than that of the P-530, saving considerable weight. A much higher proportion of the structure was of graphite fibre, including the LERX, ailerons, flaps, airbrake engine doors, fin leading and trailing edges, rudders, and many access doors.
An inflight refuelling receptacle was installed above the nose. The M61 cannon was relocated to the upper part of the nose instead of underneath.
Full fly-by-wire controls were adopted, Northrop management finally concluding that these systems were now sufficiently reliable to warrant their incorporation. The tail circuits were quadruply redundant, but the ailerons were simplex because the aircraft could always be controlled in roll by the tailplanes.
The cockpit of the P-600 was generally identical to that of the P-530. An inertial navigation system (Litton LN-33) was planned, but Northrop at USAF request did not plan for a large and expensive multi-mode radar and the designers retained a constricted nose with a pointed conical form. However, in April of 1974 Northrop contracted with Rockwell for a compact radar with a phased-array antenna that could fit inside the narrow nose.
Four other manufacturers submitted proposals--Boeing, General Dynamics, Ling-Temco-Vought, and Lockheed. In March of 1972, the Air Staff concluded that the Boeing Model 908-909 was the first choice, with the General Dynamics Model 401 and the Northrop Model P-600 as close seconds. The Vought V-1100 and Lockheed CL-1200 Lancer had been eliminated.
The Source Selection Authority, after further work, rated the General Dynamics and Northrop proposals ahead of the Boeing submission. The General Dynamics Model 401-16B and the Northrop P-600 were chosen for further development on April 13, 1972, and contracts for two YF-16s (72-1567/1568) and two YF-17s (72-1569/1570) were awarded. Rather than the "X" (experimental) prefix being used, the "Y" (development) prefix was used in order to indicate that a mixture of off-the-shelf and experimental technologies were being used. The YF-16 was to be powered by a single Pratt & Whitney F100 turbofan, whereas the YF-17 was to be powered by a pair of General Electric YJ101-GE-100 engines. The "cost plus fixed fee" contracts covered the design, construction, and testing of two prototypes, and a year of flight testing. At the time, the Air Force was still very much committed to the F-15 fighter, and visualized the LWF program as more of a technology-demonstration project rather than a serious effort for a production aircraft. At the same time, contracts were given to Pratt & Whitney for a version of the F100 turbofan specially adapted for single-engined aircraft and to General Electric for the new and smaller YJ101 engine.
The first YF-17A (72-1569) was rolled out at Hawthorne, California on April 4, 1974, and was trucked to Edwards AFB. The first YF-17A took off on its first flight on June 9, 1974 from Edwards AFB, with test pilot Hank Chouteau at the controls. On June 11, the YF-17 became the first American fighter to exceed the speed of sound in level flight without the use of an afterburner. The second YF-17A flew for the first time on August 21, 1974. The two prototypes carried out a series of 288 test flights totalling 345 hours.
The flyoff began as soon as flight testing started. There was an attempt to get as many pilots as possible to fly both the YF-16 and YF-17. The Lightweight Fighter prototypes never flew against each other, but they did fly against all current USAF fighters as well as against MiG-17s and MiG-21s that had been "acquired" by the USAF and operated at the Nellis AFB complex.
In the meantime, the governments of Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway had begun to consider possible replacements for the Lockheed F-104G Starfighter. They formed the Multinational Fighter Program Group to choose the successor, and agreed that all four countries would purchase the same aircraft. The prime candidates were the Northrop YF-17, the Dassault Mirage F.1, the SAAB JA37 Viggen, and the General Dynamics YF-16. The winner of the ACF contest in the USA would probably be the favored candidate, but the MFPG wanted to see if the USAF was going to buy the plane for itself before they made any commitment to an American candidate.
Within the Air Force staff, there was a strong institutional bias against the LWF, since they perceived it to be a threat to the F-15 program. However, the prospect of a big European order for the LWF whetted the appetite of certain Air Force brass, who now regarded the project as something more than just a technology demonstration program. To try and convince the F-15 lobby that the LWF program was not a threat to them, the LWF program was renamed Air Combat Fighter (ACF) by the Defense Department.
In September of 1974, Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger announced that that he was considering production of the winner of the LWF contest to satisfy USAF, Navy, and export requirements. Up to that time, the LWF/ACF program had been largely an academic exercise for the USAF, but the possibility of a large European order led the USAF to change its mind and envisage large-scale service for the aircraft. However, the design emphasis would be changed to that of a multi-role aircraft rather than simply an air-superiority fighter. It was agreed that the ACF would complement rather than supplement the F-15 Eagle in USAF service, easing somewhat Air Force fears that it would somehow sidetrack their Eagle program. The production form of the LWF (by now known strictly as the ACF in Defense Department press releases) would have a larger radar antenna, giving the aircraft some BVR capability. On September 11, 1974, the USAF announced plans to buy 650 ACFs, with the possibility that this could be increased to 1400 or more. This move was made to assure the potential NATO customers that the USAF would stand firmly behind the new fighter.
Although the Northrop contender demonstrated remarkable handling qualities and was actually superior in certain areas, on January 13, 1975, Air Force Secretary John McLucas announced that the YF-16 had been selected as the winner of the ACF contest. The YF-16 was a little faster than the YF-17, and its F100 powerplant was a proven engine that was in use in other warplanes already in service. The J101 engine was a new, relatively untried powerplant which would require enormous investment in tooling, spare parts, and documentation. In addition, the J101 was considered somewhat underpowered and was not a true turbofan like the YF-16's F100, and suffered from a lower specific range. In addition, the YF-16 had a better specific range than the YF-17 and was considerably less expensive.
That might have been the end of the line for the Northrop design, were it not for the US Navy's desire for a new fighter. In August of 1974, the US Navy's own VFAX program had been cancelled by Congress in favor of NACF, which instructed the Navy to choose its fighter from between the two ACF rivals. Northrop decided to team up with McDonnell Douglas to promote a version of its YF-17 as an entry in this contest. This design was eventually to emerge as the F/A-18 Hornet, which was ordered by the Navy on May 2, 1975. The second YF-17 was earmarked for development work as the "F-18 prototype" (even though the true F/A-18 did not fly until November of 1978).
I was "read in" on the A-12 program in the early 90s. The aircraft was pushing the limits of both aerodynamic and stealth envelopes, would not carry the payload of the A-6, had less range and was a maintenance nightmare waiting to happen.
Critics of the A-6 cited survivability as its leading shortcoming. Additionally, there was a 2500 "hit" arrested landing limitation on the tailhook box that would have necessitated re-manufacturing the empennage. John Lehman even had a proposal for an A-6F on his agenda as SECNAV, but cost and the stealth mafia effectively killed any chance of the A-6 continuing service.
Admit my community bias is showing, but I too agree that the F/A-18 is not a good replacement for either the F-14 or the A-6, in either of its incarnations.
Word has it that more than a few F-15 jocks at Langley AFB learned about the new Tomcat engines the HARD way.
IMHO, they ought never to have stopped building A-6s.
Red headed Stepchild of the US Navy and runt sibling to the F-16 [and now F/A-14 Tomcat].
Even when I was a kid...I didnt understand why the navy was buying them.
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