The development and flight-testing of the YF-23 offer important lessons for the Air Force as it begins studying a replacement for the F-22.
The Stealth Fighter the Air Force Said 'No' To: Why the YF-23 Still Matters
The prototype stealth fighter that lost out to Lockheed Martin’s YF-22 in the U.S. Air Force’s 1991 Advanced Tactical Fighter competition in recent years has gained a cult following.
The mystique that today surrounds Northrop Grumman’s YF-23 isn’t entirely healthy. It reflects a tendency in many Americans to look for technological solutions to human problems.
Buying F-23s instead of F-22s wouldn’t have changed the recent arc of U.S. history. It wouldn’t have stopped Russia’s resurgence or China’s rise as a world power. Trading Lockheed’s stealth fighter for Northrop’s own plane wouldn’t have halted the spreads of radical Islamic terrorism and right-wing militancy.
But the development and flight-testing of the YF-23 do offer important lessons for the Air Force as it begins studying a replacement for the F-22. The Air Force in 2016 published its “Air Superiority 2030” study, which called for a new “Penetrating Counter Air” system to supplant the service’s roughly 180 F-22s beginning in the 2030s.
The Air Force in 2017 initiated an analysis of alternatives to further refine concepts for the Penetrating Counter Air system. Service officials have said they strongly are interested in a “disaggregated” approach to air superiority that involves a wide array of systems working together.
That approach could represent a break from the past. For its entire 72-year-history, the Air Force has based its air-superiority concepts on fighter aircraft.