There is a reason why the United States has shunned any and all possibilities for any nation to lay their hands on its most coveted stealth fighter, which is exclusively deployed by the US Air Force— the F-22 Raptors.
Only a handful of these Lockheed Martin fighters are operational in the ranks of the US forces after being retired in 2009 and they along with their fellow stealth brothers F-35s give Pentagon the edge above other fighters under the same fifth-generation bracket in providing aerial superiority.
However, while the F-22s currently rank as the most advanced fighters in the world owing to their aerodynamic design and state-of-the-art features, there was a brief period of time it was given a run for its money by another dominant air superiority fighter of a similar stature— Northrop Grumman’s YF-23.
The American single-seat, twin-engine YF-23 stealth fighter aircraft was designed by Northrop Grumman for the US Air Force at the time when the F-15 Eagles were the first line of America’s defense against Soviet bombers and fighter jets.
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Out of a need to replace its current crop of fighter jets in the 1980s and especially to counter the Soviet Union’s advanced Sukhoi Su-27 and Mikoyan MiG-29 fighters, the US Air Force selected design proposals which included Northrop and McDonnell Douglas’ YF-23 along with Lockheed, Boeing, and General Dynamics’ F-22.
However, Defence Writer Kris Osborn writing for the National Interest states how the F-22s eventually won the contract.
“In 1986, the Air Force awarded Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman development deals, offering each team 50-months to build and demonstrate a prototype. Lockheed built the YF-22 and Northrop built the YF-23 stealth fighter. Lockheed won a production contract in 1991,
Why was the F-22 chosen, given Northrop’s stealth technology expertise with platforms such as the B-2? There may be many reasons for this, most of which are likely not available,” said Osborn.
Around two YF-23 prototypes were successfully built, with the first being dubbed the Black Widow II, owing to it being completely black in color. It was powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney engines which enabled the jet to supercruise at Mach 1.43 during its first round of testing in 1990.
The second prototype painted grey and named the “Grey Ghost,” was powered by General Electric YF120 engines, which improved its supercruise capabilities and enabled it to reach Mach 1.6 in testing, a whisker above F-22’s Mach 1.58.
While YF-22’s top speed still remains classified, according to defense analysts the fighters would have been able to trump Mach 2.
However, the modern F-22s which are currently operational would have beaten those speeds had the YF-23 been fielded against them, due to the Raptor’s present ability to supercruise at Mach 1.82 and flying at a top speed of Mach 2.5.
The F-22 Raptors are considered the stealthiest fighter jets on the planet with the aircraft boasting an even reduced cross radar section than that of the F-35s. This is one of the very reasons why the US has a federal law over the export of the fighters with the Pentagon fearing that such incredible designs and technology could fall into the wrong hands.
However, the YF-23 was considered to be even stealthier than the F-22s and would have been a superior option had it not lost out to the Raptors in maneuverability.
“The YF-23 proved to be stealthier than its competitor, though it was seen as less maneuverable than the thrust-vectoring YF-22. Thrust vector control allows the pilot to aim the outlet of the jet’s thrust to dramatically increase maneuverability, even allowing the aircraft to continue flying in one direction as it points its nose in another,”
Northrop opted not to include thrust vector control in their YF-23 in favor of a stealthier radar profile and lighter overall platform. Instead, they used the large surfaces of the YF-23’s unique V-tail to help the fighter turn on a dime — and the truth is, it managed performance that was nearly comparable to the F-22’s despite its lack of thrust vector control.” said Alex Hollings, while writing for the Sandbox US.
Despite the YF-23 having a clear advantage in the area of fuel range and almost matching F-22’s acrobatics, the fighters lost out to the Raptors due to Lockheed demonstrating its fighter’s capabilities in a more dynamic manner as compared to Northrop.
Lockheed test pilots showed off the aircraft’s ability to utilize a high angle of attack, fired missiles, and executed maneuvers that placed more than 9Gs worth of force on the airframe. While the YF-23 could have done the same, Northrop didn’t do it in the demonstration. Many contend that it was the salesmanship than the actual capabilities that helped Lockheed win the US defense contract.