During the height of high-speed Cold War competition with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the U.S. Air Force was working intensely to find and build a new Advanced Tactical Fighter to rival or outmatch the Su-27.
YF-23 vs. F-22: Which Was Truly Better?
Upon reflection, some might wonder why the “stealthier” option was not chosen among the two competing finalists, which were the Northrop Grumman YF-23 and the Lockheed Martin F-22.
Of course, the F-22 was chosen after prototypes of each were built and the Air Force conducted multiple assessments.
Although potentially stealthier than the F-22 according to some observers, and better with thrust-to-weight ratio calculations, the YF-23 prototypes now sit in museums.
A look at the specs of each, compiled by Bill Sweetman in 1991, “YF-22 and YF-23 Advanced Tactical Fighters” shows that indeed the YF-23 does have a superior thrust-to-weight ratio listed quite high at 1.36. The F-22’s ratio, however, is much lower at 1.08, according to data compiled. Simply put, the thrust-to-weight ratio relates to acceleration, meaning the “bursts” with which it can take off and maneuver in flight as needed.
The thrust-to-weight ratio would seem to determine the ability to which a fighter jet can “thrust” into position, avoid incoming fire, and surge to lethal contact with an enemy. Both the YF-23 and YF-22 are listed as achieving similar speeds of Mach 2.25, however, the F-22 shows superior supercruise speed at Mach 1.8, compared with the YF-23’s 1.6. The speed at supercruise would prove extremely critical as it enables more dwell time over targets and an ability to maneuver for longer periods of time without afterburner.
The Match Up
Several articles on the two aircraft claim that, despite the thrust-to-weight ratio difference, the F-22 was more agile and maneuverable. It would be interesting to take a close look at data from the tests, however, the F-22 has been highlighted for its agility and air-to-air maneuverability. These F-22 traits may well have been a large factor in why the F-22 was ultimately chosen.
However, despite the claims by some that the YF-23 is stealthier, a close look at the airframes certainly invites questions regarding stealth. The extent of heat signature thermal management, radar absorbent coating materials, internal weapons bay and hard-points configuration, and an internally buried engine might prove difficult to discern.
Perhaps the stealthier aircraft was only truly determined through detailed testing and assessments. At the same time, looking at the airframes suggests that the F-22 is stealthier. The F-22 has a more blended horizontal wing-body fuselage, whereas the dual-engine exhaust on the YF-23 looks more angular and jagged with two protruding or elevated engine exhaust streams.
While the F-22 was selected by the U.S. Air Force, future aviation analysts may question the decision. There will forever be speculation on which aircraft actually performed better, as the decision likely included extensive assessments of many variables, yet the F-22 has come to be regarded by observers and proponents as the most dominant air supremacy platform ever to exist.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.