When it comes to modern military aviation, there is one aircraft that stands out from all the others. This aircraft is none other than the Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor. Almost everyone knows about the F-22 but not many people know about its sibling (and opponent), the Northrop YF-23 Black Widow/Grey Ghost. The YF-23 lost against the YF-22 in a contest to win over the USAF and many military aviation enthusiasts believe it should’ve been the other way around. Was the YF-23 better than the YF-22? Stick around and find out!
Before we get into the nitty gritty details regarding why the YF-23 could have been better, I’d first like to go over some of its background. As Russia started developing newer, better aircraft such as the Su-27 and Mig-29, the United States started to get a little worried. Due to international pressure, the United States Air Forced launched the ‘Advanced Tactical Fighter Program’ or the ATF program, open to any aircraft manufacturer that could meet the standards of the USAF. In order to compete with the developing aircraft of other nations these standards included: stealth capabilities, the ability to super-cruise, super-maneuverability and much more. There were three main entries the the ATF program; the Boeing X-32, the Lockheed YF-22 and the Northrop YF-23. The X-32 did not make it very far in the competition so the two we are focused on today are the YF-22 and the YF-23. Ultimately the YF-22 won the competition, but many people think the YF-23 was the superior aircraft. But in what ways was the YF-23 better than the YF-22?
Perhaps the most important feature for any aircraft in the ATF program to have was stealth. Although the Air Force had the F-117 Nighthawk, they needed something much more stealthy and much more capable to compete with the fighters of other nations. Both the YF-22 and YF-23 featured exceptional stealth capabilities, however the Northrop YF-23 was slightly stealthier than its competition. This is for several reasons; one of which is surprisingly its air intakes!
On most fighter aircraft, the air intakes have to be separated from the aircraft’s body to avoid compressor stalls due to boundary layer air. This is even featured on the YF-22 and today’s F-22 Raptor. The problem with this is that the gap that’s created between the air intake and the aircraft’s body increases it’s radar cross section and severely compromises stealth. Although the YF-22 did not address this issue, the YF-23 did. The way the Northrop solved the problem of boundary layer is unlike any other aircraft today. The Yf-23 featured what are called ‘gauzing panels’, which are panels in front of each intake that are covered with thousands of tiny holes. These hole suck the boundary layer air away from the intake instead of completely separating it. Since this method does not involve a boundary layer gap, the YF-23 had a much smaller radar cross section and thus, better stealth.
Another reason that the YF-23 had better stealth than the YF-22 is that fact that it had an overall better geometry. Modern stealth aircraft are designed around very specific geometries that keep radar signals from reflecting back to their source. The overall geometry of the YF-23 was proven to be better suited for stealth than the YF-22. Considering that the Air Force’s main objective of the ATF program was to develop an advanced stealth fighter and the fact that the YF-23 had better stealth than the YF-22 turns many people to believe that the YF-23 was the superior aircraft.
Aside from being extra stealthy, another requirement of the ATF program was for the aircraft to be super-maneuverable. Perhaps the main reason for this is because most Russian fighters such as the Su-27 are designed around the concept of super-maneuverability and the Air Force wanted their upcoming 5th Gen fighter to compete. In terms of the maneuverability of the the YF-22 and 23, they are both highly maneuverable aircraft. The YF-22 was proven to by slightly more maneuverable due to its thrust vectoring capabilities. However, the YF-23 was essentially able to match all the maneuvers of the YF-22 without thrust vectoring. The fact that the YF-23 was so maneuverable without thrust vectoring is impressive enough on its own. Instead of thrust vectoring, the YF-23 featured two massive stabilators to help it turn on a dime. Although the YF-22 was slightly more maneuverable, people still believe that the YF-23 is superior, especially in todays war theater as maneuverability plays almost no role in dogfighting anymore.
In regards to weaponry, the YF-22 is the clear winner. Although the YF-22 and 23 carried the same payload, the YF-22 was able to carry twice as much as its competition. While the YF-23 was able to carry 4 AIM-120 missiles, the the YF-22 was able to carry six AIM-120s as well as two AIM 9 sidewinders! For an aircraft that has to maintain a small radar cross section carrying this large of a payload is quite impressive. There’s not much to argue here as the YF-22 is very clearly the winner. The lack of weapons in the YF-23 may have actually been its demise.
I don’t often see many people covering this aspect of the ATF program, but range was extremely important in the designs of these aircraft. Not only so that the Air Force could conduct long range, stealthy strikes, but also because the Navy was considering purchasing the winning aircraft to replace the F-14! For naval operations, having an aircraft that can go a long distance is vital as many of the missions are deployed from out at sea. The obvious winner in this category is the Northrop YF-23. The YF-23 actually had a very impressive range of 2796 nautical miles! The YF-22 on the other hand had a range that was nearly half that at 1864 nautical miles. In terms of range, the YF-23 is the clear winner.
When considering the avionics of these two aircraft we have to realize that both of them are still highly classified military aircraft, so not much is really know about their systems and how they work. What we can do is go off of what the USAF has released publicly. After the ATF program, it was released to the public that in testing, it was determined that the YF-22 had a more advanced avionics system than the YF-23. This is also something that could have caused the YF-23 to lose the competition.
Why Did The YF-23 Lose?
All of that sounds great for the YF-23, so why did it lose? Well, there are several reasons. The first and most widely accepted reason is that the Air Force thought that Lockheed Martin would be more financially responsible with the program save the Air Force some money. The opposite would turn out to be true as the F-22 program went way over budget, forcing production to stop. That is why there are only 186 F-22s in existence today and also why no more can ever be produced. Aside from that, during testing Lockheed Martin displayed their YF-22 in a much more dynamic way than Northrop’s YF-23. Even though the YF-23 could do all the same maneuvers that the YF-22 could, it seemed as though the YF-22 was more capable due to how it was displayed. With this in mind we can see that the Air Force chose the winning aircraft more for financial reasons than performance. Unfortunately it did not work out the way the USAF intended and the F-22 program was cancelled during the early stages of its production.
So Was The YF-23 Better Than The YF-22?
Was the YF-23 a better aircraft? In many ways, yes, yes it was. But the other side of that coin is that in many areas the YF-22 out performed the YF-23. Personally, I think the YF-23 was general a more advanced aircraft, especially in regards to stealth. But there is one thing to keep in mind; the United States Air Force know more about these aircraft than we ever will. With this in mind, there may be things regarding the YF-22 that made it a better choice. We may never know. One thing is for certain; the YF-23 is still a sexy fighter.
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