Once upon a time, the Navy was developing a plan to replace the F-14 and the A-6. The Air Force needed to replace the F-15 and the F-111. In 1986, Congress essentially directed that the Navy’s fighter be the Air Force’s Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF), its F-15 replacement, and the Air Force’s strike airplane be the Navy’s Advanced Tactical Aircraft (ATA), its A-6 replacement. The Air Force planned to buy 750 ATFs and the Navy, 618 NATFs.
The Air Force and its contractors had been planning the replacement for the F-15 for several years. A formal requirements document was first issued in January 1973. The design studies considered incorporation of the latest advancements in structures, aerodynamics, propulsion, avionics, etc to maximize mission effectiveness, with stealth being a major differentiator.
This effort culminated in a formal competition in 1986. The Air Force selected Lockheed (teamed with Boeing and General Dynamics) and Northrop (teamed with McDonnell) to build demonstrators, the YF-22 and the YF-23 respectively.
The Navy subsequently established a three-person NATF program office collocated with the Air Force program office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. In September 1988, Lockheed and Northrop received contracts from the Navy to study carrier-based derivatives of their proposed aircraft.
Carrier basing imposes specific design requirements for low-speed capability, low-speed handling qualities, over-the-nose visibility, compactness, corrosion protection, structure and hardware for catapult launches and arrested landings, etc. For example, in the case of the NATF, the Navy specified a maximum takeoff weight of 65,000 lbs and a landing weight of 52,000 lbs. (The Navy estimated that the difference in requirements would result in an NATF empty weight of 4,000 lbs more than the ATF’s and a gross weight difference of two to three times that.) It was to be no longer than the F-14 (62 ft) or take up more space when folded.
The basic mission requirements of the Air Force and Navy were also different. At the risk of oversimplifying, the Air Force ATF was to be an air superiority fighter; the Navy ATF also had to have the capability to shoot down enemy bombers before they could launch cruise missiles. This fleet air defense role required long range sensors, weapons, and endurance. It also inclined the Navy toward a second crewman, whereas the Air Force wanted a single-seat fighter.
As a result, the NATF designs only superficially resembled the land-based ATF demonstrators. The Lockheed NATF had variable-sweep wings like the F-14.
The Northrop NATF retained the basic wing planform of the YF-23 but replaced the stealthy ruddervators with a canard forward and vertical fins aft.
Nevertheless, the engines and much of the avionics and aircraft systems were to be common even if the airframe was not. The Air Force estimated that the engines and avionics represented 44 percent of the ATF’s unit flyaway cost.
The Northrop YF-23 was the first to fly, lifting off on 27 August 1990. The Lockheed YF-22 flew a month later. The development and evaluation programs ran almost concurrently, with the Air Force selecting Lockheed's F-22 for qualification and production in April 1991.
The Navy then had to deal with OSD's disagreement with its plans for an A-12 replacement and continued F-14 production. The result was the F-18E/F program, with the F being a two-seat variant of the single-seat E. The design was based on the so-called legacy F-18 Hornet, ironically a development of the losing airplane in the Air Force’s so-called light-weight fighter competition that was supposed to result in a common Navy/Air Force fighter.
It certainly was not nearly as advanced as the F-22, particularly with respect to stealth. Moreover, the Navy chose to initially qualify and deploy the first Super Hornets with less avionics capability than it was planned to have, which even then would be less than that of the production F-22. The uncharacteristic restraint, however, resulted in a development/qualification program that was essentially on cost and schedule and met the Navy's near-term need for F-14 and A-6 replacements. The first F-18Es deployed in 2001 while the F-22 was only then being approved for low-rate production, several years behind schedule. The Super Hornet went into action in Iraq in 2002; the F-22 was finally declared to be operationally capable in December 2005. Its first assignment? To guard the east coast of the United States, a mission that didn't require the advanced technology and capability it possessed. However, it still wasn't called to action several years later to establish a no-fly zone in Libya, with the F-22's stealthiness having been touted beforehand as being tailor made for the purpose. The reason for its no-show, according to an Air Force spokesman, Lt.Col John Haynes, was that "[the joint task force] needed to look realistically at the fighter assets already within Europe to execute operations...Because there are no F-22 Raptors based in the European theater, they were not included in the initial stages of the operation."
To be fair, the combat-proven Super Hornets were not employed in Operation Odyssey Dawn either. There were no U.S. Navy aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean at the time, Enterprise having departed in mid-February for the Arabian Sea.
The F-22 finally dropped bombs in combat for the first time in September
2014, almost 12 years after VFA-115 went into combat with its Super Hornets.
In large part because of the F-22’s very high unit cost, its production was curtailed at only 187 aircraft. In contrast, the 500th F-18E/F /G was delivered on 20 April 2011. As of mid 2015, production of the F-18E/F/G was to continue through 2017. There is a possibility that the line will continue to be kept open because of ongoing program delays with the F-35C.
The Super Hornet doesn't have the mission capability of the F-22 or the A-12, not to mention the F-14 or the A-6, but so far it is good enough.