By Tommy H. Thomason

Saturday, April 23, 2011

NATF: Better is the Enemy of Good Enough

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, however, had withdrawn from the program before then, citing the unaffordability of the ATF, its weight, and program schedule delays. At the point, the Admirals expected to keep the F-14 in service through 2015, giving them time to develop their own advanced fighter with minimal overlap of A-12 development expenditures. Unfortunately, the Secretary of Defense unexpectedly cancelled the A-12 program in January 1991. It had gotten unacceptably behind schedule and over weight. There was no push back from Congress on the complete failure of the joint program concept.
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.
The early retirement of the F-14 with its long-range Phoenix missile capability and the A-6 with its all-weather strike capability caused a furor in the Naval Aviation community but to no avail. The F-18E/F Super Hornet was decreed to be good enough.

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.


Anonymous said...

Very well said and as always, very insightful. The Tomcat is the airplane that growing up I always dreamed of flying. I am not so sure I would have done very well with the engine failures it seemed to often have though! My perception of aerospace, the industry and politics has changed over the years now that I have been in it for sometime. It is pretty much the same as yours but with less background than what you have acquired of course!

This is a great piece,

Alan Weber

Anonymous said...

The Super Hornet is good enough. The F-14D would've been far better. An F-14D equipped with AESA radar, and possibly the AIM-152 AAAM, would have been the cat's meow. If the Navy couldn't afford the NATF, the "Super Tomcat" could have given the Navy 90% of the NATF's capability at a far more economical price. Sadly, or happily depending on which way you look at it, such high end fighter capability is no longer necessary. Yes the Super Hornet is good enough.

Anonymous said...

The navy needed a stealth fighter that could shoot down fighters without being seen. If you can't see the fighter on your radar, and they can see you, then you have zero chance of winning against a stealthy fighter that you can't see. Those are the qualities that make the (now called) F/A-22 Raptor such a great airplane. So, no. I don't really think a super hornet is enough. If you had a dogfight between a super hornet and a F/A-22, the raptor would shoot the hornets down with no difficulty. Nice try.

Anonymous said...

The Raptor is clearly at the top of the food chain. It also has a very delicate coating of RAM. I doubt that it could withstand the Naval Aviation environment.(We'll see how the F-35C fares.) I do agree the F/A-18E/F is not up to the task of providing naval air superiority. I also agree termination of the F-14D was a huge mistake. An evolved "Super Tomcat" could have at least been the equal of the latest Flanker variant. Hopefully, the F-35C will live up to it's reputation. If it can't, we'll have to wait for the F/A-XX.

Bill said...

The NAVY is being forced to take the F-35C. They are reluctant to take on an Air Force based fighter that has a single engine, single seat and has an expensive, and maintenance intensive outer skin to maintain.

The plane has just now passed the first part of sea trials.

I think a variant of the F-18f, with swing wings would be a better bargain than this "Flying video game"

Anonymous said...

Bill - out of your statement you got one (and only one) thing right.

"They are reluctant to take on an Air Force based fighter"

Twin engines was a requirement invented out of thin air when Navy needed reasons to have something not shared with AF.

RPj1956 USN said...

The YF23 should be incorporated into our Navy Carrier Air Wing arsenal. The Navy should take the YF23 to replace the strike power of the F14 Tomcat, a role the F18 Super Hornet is swiftly becoming too obsolete to hold and the F35 simply was never designed to do. Beyond the myriad tactical advantages the twin engine super cruise YF23 has over the F35 and even the F18 Super Hornet is Reliable Maintainability, something uniquely well suited to the needs of an isolated, at sea Navy Air Wing. Greater ease of flight also makes better suited for the myriad challenges of night carrier landing. Additionally the "much faster" Intercept speed, greater stealth, and increased internal payload, of the YF23 over the Raptor is another significant factor that should have been considered regarding this airframe for it's use as a superior NATF U.S. Navy Carrier Taskforce defender. The faster a plane can get to a threat, unseen by the enemy, the further away from the ship the fight. We have invested in the new $13B Gerald R. Ford [CVN-78] and the earlier $6.2B George H.W. Bush [CVN- 77] class carriers but placed their fates, and it’s crew, in the hands of the promising but questionable F35 and venerable but tired F18 Super Hornet. Drones like the 47B are fine, but you can certainly understand the best processor is the brain of a well trained pilot with his butt in the fight! Furthermore, the YF23, powered with GE YF120 engines, is essentially a proven airframe and air weapons platform having been rigorously tested and evaluated in competition with the then YF22, now the Air Force Raptor. The advancements in processor speed and CPU miniaturization since the 1990s can be explored and exploited to literally make this stealthy fly-by-wire airframe even better now than it impressively was then. Subsequently the prospect of reviving the YF23 for Navy Carrier Air Wing use as the NATF replacing the aging, non stealth F18s, will be a very cost effective way to recoup the significant man hours and $650M financial investment already made in the YF23 catapulting the Naval air fleet into the 21st Century. To discard this technological marvel at a time when money for ground-up development is scarce, Russia and China are flexing and threatening, and the Navy has no viable NATF alternative in the pipeline to defend our increased CVN investments would be a significant disservice to our national defense and the sailors who serve in the Carrier Taskforce. Finally, the faster stealthier YF23 is the perfect compliment to the more agile Raptor as it is a variant iteration of the same air platform goals, requirements, and challenges put forth by the competition that lead to her design. Considering threats like the Sukhoi 35, thrust vectoring Su-37 and Su-47, and the fifth generation stealth Su-T50 we can ill afford to discard the opportunity the twin engine YF23 presents for our Navy. Super maneuverability is useless if the YF23 is upon you before you can even thin to maneuver. With a faster closure rate, higher stealth, with BVRAAMs make Northrop’s YF-23 not only the right plane at the right time, but indeed a God send we would be ill advised to ignore. The “Grey Ghost” deserves another serious look as the next Navy’s Advanced Tactical Fighter.

Anonymous said...

The F-23 NATF design was a non-starter. The Navy looked at both designs, and thought it was too much trouble at too high a price. Thats why SecNav Garrett lobbied for more new build F-14Ds instead. We all know how the story goes after that. Hopefully, the new F/A-XX or NGAD will have most of what the NATF was trying to encompass. I think stealth has its place, but shouldn't be the driver. High end performance in airframe, propulsion, and sensors, along with a large internal fuel capacity are more important for the maritime air superiority mission in my humble opinion.