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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Meet the YF-23: The Stealth Fighter That Was Better Than the F-22?

Northrop YF-23 PAV-1 in flight.

A Second Place Finish for the U.S. YF-23 Just Wasn’t Good Enough – After a grueling head-to-head acquisition match-up, the U.S. Air Force decided the YF-23 stealth fighter wasn’t going to cut it.

It was a difficult choice during the Advanced Tactical Fighter competition as the YF-23 was up against what became the F-22. Finishing second was not good enough for the YF-23, but it had an innovative design and other advantages to make it an intriguing fighter to examine closer.

A High-Stakes Flight Showdown

The Advanced Tactical Fighter challenge of the late 1980s was a contest that would yield a stealth warplane that could dominate the Soviet Union’s Su-27 and MiG-29, and replace the F-15. The YF-23 was the design entry from Northrop Grumman/McDonnell Douglas. While the YF-22 came from Lockheed Martin/Boeing/General Dynamics.

What Was the YF-23?

The YF-23 was a single-seat twin-engine fifth-generation stealth fighter. It boasted a diamond wing-shape for low drag and radar evasion. The YF-23 was thought to have better super-cruise mode and stealth characteristics. The YF-22 was seen as the superior dogfighter.

Two Prototypes Were Built

There were two YF-23 technology demonstrators with turbofan propulsion. One had Pratt and Whitney engines (called the Black Widow II) and the other had General Electric engines (called the Gray Ghost). The Gray Ghost could cruise at a top speed of 1,451 miles per hour. The two prototypes had a maximum approximated range of 2,796 miles and a ceiling of 65,000 feet – better specs than the YF-22.

Armed Well and Flew Lighter

The two prototypes of the YF-23 used 20mm M61 Vulcan Gatling-style rotary cannon, while internal bays carried four AIM-7 Sparrow or AIM-120 AMRAAM medium-range air-to-air missiles, plus two AIM-9 short-range missiles.

Engineers wanted the YF-23 models to conserve weight so they did not have “thrust vectoring for aerodynamic control as was used on the Lockheed YF-22.”

A Test Pilot Was Not Disappointed in the YF-23

U.S. test pilot Paul Metz flew the YF-23 and still claimed that it was just as good as the YF-22 in a 2015 speech at the Western Museum of Flight.

“Never hang your head in shame about what we did. We built a tremendous product that would stand side-by-side with anything else, and in many cases exceed the capabilities of anything else. And we can always be proud of that.”

Better Marketing Can Win Competitions

Metz believed the YF-22 was picked because Lockheed Martin/Boeing/General Dynamics could run the acquisition program better than Northrop Grumman/McDonnell Douglas.

Metz also said that the engineers of the YF-23 did not have the same level of salesmanship as the marketers representing the YF-22.

Test Pilot Said the YF-22 Team Really Knew How to Sell

“Lockheed infused far more marketing, salesmanship, and pizazz – ‘lasting impressions’ into their YF-22 flight demonstration program. They fundamentally understood how to sell their aircraft and how ‘showmanship’ heavily impacts the acquisition decision-making process. Northrop didn’t and that fact may have proven fatal for the YF-23,” he said.

Could the YF-23 have avoided the various problems that later afflicted the F-22 program such as the delays, cost over-runs, need for software upgrades, and reliability issues? We’ll never know the answer to that question. But the YF-23 was an ahead-of-its-time design and that could have spawned its own problems during a production run.

It probably deserves a better fate than sitting at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.