It’s easy to envision the amazing tactical benefit that a carrier-launched stealth bomber would provide to a Carrier Air Wing by projecting new dimensions of air power and holding adversaries at risk in unprecedented ways.
Such a possibility has never operated from U.S. carriers, yet it was possible years ago.
Meet the A-12
A carrier-launched bomber was developed using Air Force stealth technology in combination with Navy weapons developers to bring a new kind of firepower to maritime war.
Development of the A-12 Avenger program began in the early 80s as the Advanced Tactical Aircraft (ATA) program.
The original intent was to replace the Northrop Grumman A-6 Intruder that was in service with the United States Navy and U.S. Marine Corps.
“The airplane in question, the a-12, should have provided heavy, stealthy, long-range strike capability well into the twenty-first century – a capability that is very much in demand, as recent events have demonstrated. It ended up instead as a $5 billion plane that never dropped a bomb,” Foreign Affairs reported.
The proposed aircraft, engineered by McDonnell Douglas and General Dynamics, was ultimately canceled in 1991 due to reported delays, cost overruns, and other industry-Navy complexities.
The collapse of the program certainly deprived the Navy of a unique and unprecedented asset.
The program’s cancellation resulted in years of litigation, with the ultimate result being a settlement in 2014, and no aircraft was ever built, according to reports.
A U.S. Court of Appeals ordered the contractors to repay the government $1.3 billion after the Pentagon refused to further fund the program due to program delays and technical problems. The industry partners appealed, and ultimately a settlement was reached for roughly $400 million.
A-12: What Could Have Been … A Carrier-Launched Stealth Bomber
The controversy, setbacks, and ultimate cancellation of the program could easily be interpreted as nothing short of tragic, given the promise of such a platform. Built with a stealthy-looking blended wing-body design, the aircraft was expected to reach full-scale production in large quantities for both the Air Force and the Navy.
The tactical merits of such a bomber, should it come to exist, are numerous and varied. The most promising is attack range. While the B-2 bomber is famous for making 44-hour missions from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri to the island of Diego Garcia off of the coast of India in support of the war in Afghanistan.
A carrier-launched bomber would hold areas at risk from much closer-in ranges. This not only decreases the mission time but also places stealth-bomber attack options within much closer reach of critical target areas.
The concept with stealth bomber technology, as evidenced by a B-2 and now B-21 is to architect an aircraft so stealthy that an adversary has no idea an aircraft is even “there.” This is achieved through what is often referred to as broadband stealth, an ability of an aircraft to elude both low-frequency surveillance radar that can detect the “presence” of an aircraft and “engagement” radar, a higher frequency system that enables air defenses to establish a target track and actually “hit” an attacking aircraft.
From the Vault