But if the YF-23 program is any indication, it could take longer than 15 years to invent a new air-superiority system, whatever form it takes.
The mystique that today surrounds Northrop Grumman’s YF-23 isn’t entirely healthy. It reflects a tendency in many Americans to look for technological solutions to human problems.
Buying F-23s instead of F-22s wouldn’t have changed the recent arc of U.S. history. It wouldn’t have stopped Russia’s resurgence or China’s rise as a world power. Trading Lockheed’s stealth fighter for Northrop’s own plane wouldn’t have halted the spreads of radical Islamic terrorism and right-wing militancy.
(This first appeared in May 2019.)
But the development and flight-testing of the YF-23 do offer important lessons for the Air Force as it begins studying a replacement for the F-22. The Air Force in 2016 published its “Air Superiority 2030” study, which called for a new “Penetrating Counter Air” system to supplant the service’s roughly 180 F-22s beginning in the 2030s.
The Air Force in 2017 initiated an analysis of alternatives to further refine concepts for the Penetrating Counter Air system. Service officials have said they strongly are interested in a “disaggregated” approach to air superiority that involves a wide array of systems working together.
That approach could represent a break from the past. For its entire 72-year-history, the Air Force has based its air-superiority concepts on fighter aircraft.
It seems highly likely that the new Penetrating Counter Air system will include fighters, but more than before these fighters might coordinate with drones and air-, space- and ground-based networks, sensors and weapons.
But if the YF-23 program is any indication, it could take longer than 15 years to invent a new air-superiority system, whatever form it takes. The Air Force in 1971 began studying requirements for a new fighter to succeed the F-15, which itself at the time was still in development, according to Paul Metz, a former Northrop test pilot who flew the YF-23.
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