The YF-23 possesses non-traditional breakthrough features and design, but unfortunately, this aircraft was prematurely killed, by the rival YF-22 Raptor.

Once considered a masterpiece of modern engineering, a symbol of the superiority of US military science. Powered by a durable, state-of-the-art engine that has never appeared in the world. In a bizarre shape, it can fly through any defense line, fooling all the world’s most modern Radar. That is the fighter that is said to be able to easily shoot down the F-22 Raptor in an air battle, the Northrop YF-23 fighter.

Behind every military aircraft that entered production and service was numerous failures. It may be due to the project’s ambition too much, beyond the technological capabilities of the manufacturer at the time, but for the YF-23, it was a pity. The YF-23 possesses non-traditional breakthrough features and design, but unfortunately, this aircraft was prematurely killed, by the rival YF-22 Raptor.

In 1991, the Air Force selected Lockheed’s YF-22 fighter over Northrop’s YF-23 as the basis for the service’s new air-superiority fighter. That wasn’t the only major decision the Air Force made at the time. The service also selected Pratt & Whitney’s YF-119 as the engine powering the YF-22 instead of General Electric’s YF-120.

Development of a new jet fighter began in the 1980s when the Cold War was at its peak. The jets that the Air Force operated at the time, including the F-14 Tomcat and the F-15 Eagle, were still in the prime of their operational service, but new Soviet fourth-generation fighters such as the Sukhoi Su-27 and the Mikoyan MiG-29 were proving adept as direct competitors to U.S. aircraft. The Air Force wanted something better—and to find it, they held a contest among defense contractors, the “Advanced Tactical Fighter” competition. Two potential candidates for the program were the YF-22, built by Lockheed, Boeing, and General Dynamics, and the YF-23, built by Northrop and McDonnell Douglas.

Both YF-22 and YF-23 were revolutionary new designs, bringing all that the United States had wanted to the table. The two were very similar in capabilities; of the two, the YF-23 was faster, and it also proved to be harder to detect on radar, though the YF-22 was more maneuverable.

The largest difference between the two planes, however, was in their sharply differing appearances. The YF-23’s wings resembled a diamond, with a smaller profile than the YF-22. Two YF-23 prototypes were ultimately built; each was equipped with in-flight refueling capabilities and a weapon bay that could have held four AIM-120 missiles. If the aircraft had gone into production, it could have also been equipped with a 20-millimeter Vulcan cannon and an additional weapon bay for Sidewinder missiles.

One of the most impressive points besides the main wings was the design of the engine exhaust of the aircraft. Accordingly, instead of facing sideways like the traditional engine, the exhaust rings were directed upwards, providing good infrared shielding. The jet exhaust was covered with an insulation material developed by Allison, which prevents infrared detection from behind.

The YF-23 has better supersonic cruise capabilities than the YF-22 at Mach 1.8, thanks to its General Electric YF120 engines. Northrop analyst Barry Watts said that, even equipped with lower-powered Pratt & Whitney YF119 engines, the YF-23 was still capable of supersonic cruise at Mach 1.4. In terms of range, the YF-23 was also more impressive than the design of Lockheed Martin when it had a range of 4,500 km, larger than the 3,200 km of the YF-22.

The YF-23 could carry a variety of weapons available in the US inventory, and it also had modern avionics that could be operated in all weather conditions. Its stealth was also impressive thanks to its radar-absorbent coating to avoid enemy detection and pursuit.

But, forced to choose between the two aircraft, the Air Force ultimately preferred the YF-22, and that plane ultimately became the F-22 Raptor, which continues to fly and has been regarded by some as the best fighter aircraft in the world.

The failure of the YF-23 can be explained by the following reasons: The first was the political issue. According to some sources, Northrop and its partner McDonnell Douglas had a bad reputation in the B-2 and A-12 aircraft program, making the Pentagon unhappy. They feared the same thing would happen to the Advanced Tactical Fighter program, so they decided to give Lockheed Martin the chance with the YF-22.

The next reason was the vision in the design of stealth fighter. While Northrop mechanically complied with the US Air Force’s requirements to the ATF, Lockheed has shown a vision beyond what the US Air Force envisages. The design of the YF-23 was the perfect combination of speed, altitude and stealth. Meanwhile, the view of the US Air Operations Command was skeptical of the ability to effectively operate stealth features in practice. Instead, they wanted to make sure the aircraft in the ATF project had to be flexible enough to defeat the airborne threats in sight.

The F-22 is equipped with dual Pratt & Whitney F119-PW-100 augmented turbofan engines are closely spaced, and incorporate pitch-axis thrust vectoring nozzles, that give it excellent maneuverability. Pentagon officials have been overly cautious and concerned about the risk of their aircraft being overtaken by Russia in terms of maneuverability and agility, and the F-22 has satisfied them.

In addition, the reason the YF-23 was not selected was the issue of the US Navy. Although not participating in the ATF, but the US Navy still had the right to choose the winner. At that time, the navy was pursuing the Navalized Advanced Tactical Fighter program.

On the other hand, the YF-23 was equipped with a really powerful YF-120 engine. But that power came at a cost. The YF-120 might be more difficult, and more expensive, to develop for mass production. When the Air Force tapped the YF-22 as the basis for its next fighter, it also selected the YF-119 as that fighter’s engine.

Pratt & Whitney also won with the F119 engine, though not as powerful as General Electric’s, but more reliable. As a result, the Lockheed corporation created a fighter with unprecedented performance. However, if the YF-23 was to be chosen, it could be a superior fighter.


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