The U.S. Air Force’s venerable F-22 Raptor is widely seen as the world’s most capable air superiority fighter, but for a short time, it was nearly joined by a sister platform modified specifically for the Navy in the NATF-22.
The Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor came about as a result of the U.S. Air Force’s Advanced Tactical Fighter program that aimed to field an all-new aircraft that could not only compete with advanced Soviet jets like the Sukhoi Su-27 and Mikoyan MiG-29, but dominate them. The Su-27 and MiG-29 had both been developed with America’s F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon squarely in their sights, and although the Soviet Union was on its last leg by the late 1980s, the Air Force remained steadfast in its need for a new generation of fighter.
Ultimately, the F-22 Raptor won out over its (arguably more capable) Northrop YF-23 competition, thanks in no small part to Lockheed’s flair for dramatic presentations and Northrop’s troubled reputation at the time. While the YF-23 boasted better range and stealth, the YF-22 and its operational F-22 successor offered a combination of solid capability and Lockheed Martin’s reputation for delivering highly capable military aircraft. While the YF-22 ultimately won the decision, either aircraft would have gone on to become the world’s first stealth fighter, establishing a new generation of fighters to come. Had the YF-23 won out, it would have also been the defacto choice for a Navy fighter variant for consideration.
While some still contend that an F-23 could have been the superior fighter, the F-22 quickly separated itself from its operational competition thanks to a combination of low observability, high speed, and acrobatic performance. The Raptor was not only able to reach and sustain speeds as high as Mach 2.25, it also offered the ability to “supercruise,” or to maintain supersonic speeds without the use of the afterburners on its pair of Pratt & Whitney F119-PW-100 augmented turbofans. The thrust pouring out of those engines was managed by the aircraft’s Thrust Vector Control surfaces, which allowed the pilot to orient the outflow of the engines independent of the direction the aircraft was pointed. In other words, an F-22 pilot can point its nose (and weapons) down at you while it continues to push forward through the sky.
Related: COULD THE YF-23 HAVE BEEN BETTER THAN THE F-22?
The F-22 proved so capable, in fact, that Congress pressed the Navy to consider adopting a sweep-wing version of the new fighter under the NATF (Naval Advanced Tactical Fighter) program that began in 1988. The groundbreaking fighter was also the basis of the FB-22 concept, which was a Delta-wing F-22 variant meant for service as a fighter-bomber.
In return for the Navy considering the NATF as a potentially lower-cost alternative to developing their own replacement carrier-based fighter, the U.S. Air Force agreed to evaluate a modified version of the carrier-based stealth bomber being developed under the Navy’s Advanced Tactical Aircraft (ATA) program as a replacement for their own aging F-111.
In theory, this agreement would allow the Air Force to leverage Navy R&D for their new bomber, while the Navy leveraged the Air Force’s for their new fighter. This approach to sharing development costs across branches, one could argue, would reach its zenith when multiple combat aircraft programs across the Navy, Air Force, and Marines were merged to create what would go on to become the (incredibly expensive) F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.
Related: AN F-35 PILOT EXPLAINS WHY THE JET’S BAD PRESS MISSES THE POINT
In a prelude to things to come, the NATF program, and its associated plans for an NATF-22, were soon seen as prohibitively expensive. By 1990, some seven years before the F-22 would first take to the sky, Admiral Richard Dunleavy, the man responsible for outlining the Navy’s requirements for a new fighter, was quoted as saying that he didn’t see any way the F-22 could be incorporated into an affordable plan for Naval aviation. As a result, the NATF-22 concept was dropped in early 1991.
Had the U.S. Navy opted to pursue a carrier-capable variant of the F-22, there would have been a number of significant technical hurdles to overcome. Aircraft designed for carrier operations have to manage a very different set of take-off and landing challenges than their land-based counterparts. The fuselage needs to be more physically robust to withstand the incredible forces applied to it during catapult launches and short-distance landings supported by a tailhook at the rear of the aircraft. The NATF-22 would also have to leverage the same sort of variable-sweep wing approach found on the F-14 to grant the aircraft the ability to fly slowly enough to safely land aboard a carrier.
Related: F-14 TOMCAT: IRAN’S BEST FIGHTER JET USED TO BE AMERICA’S TOP GUN
That variable-sweep wing design itself brought a slew of its own problems engineers would need to solve. First and foremost, the Navy was already dealing with the high cost of maintaining the sweep wing apparatus on the F-14 Tomcat. A new sweep wing design likely wouldn’t alleviate all of the high operational costs associated with the Tomcat. As the Air Force has gone on to prove, the Navy’s decision was probably right. Even with fixed wings, the F-22 remains one of the most expensive fighter platforms to operate.
It also stands to reason that the variable-sweep wing design would compromise some degree of the aircraft’s stealth. If the connecting surfaces of the moveable wings produced a high enough return on radar to secure a weapons-grade lock on the aircraft, the value of such a fighter would be fundamentally compromised. The F-22 may be fast and maneuverable, but the Navy’s existing F-14 Tomcats were faster — and despite their high maintenance costs, still significantly cheaper than building a new stealth fighter for the Navy’s flattops, even if it was borrowing heavily from the Air Force’s program.
At the end of the day, it’s easy to see why the U.S. Navy opted not to pursue the NATF-22. It was complicated, expensive, and may have only offered a slight improvement over the Navy’s existing carrier-based platforms (if any at all). But, nonsensical as it may be in practical use, the very concept of a variable-sweep wing F-22 carrying on the legacy of the fan-favorite F-14 Tomcat aboard America’s supercarriers is just too cool not to look back on a bit wistfully.
After all, with only 186 F-22 Raptors ever rolling out of Lockheed Martin’s factories, this king of sky combat is destined to have a painfully short reign. One has to wonder… could a Navy variant of the F-22 have been enough to save this program from the budgetary ax?
The truth is, probably not — but the pictures sure are cool to look at.
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This article was originally published 12/1/2020
Feature image: Lockheed Martin concept art
When some one searches for his essential thing, therefore he/she
wishes to be available that in detail, therefore that thing is maintained
I understand the expense of maintenance of a swept wing design. The better option would have been to extend the wings of the F22 similar to what has been done with the F35. This wouldn’t have been such a design change to increase costs too much.
Javier Iniguez says
The NATF-22 would’ve given the Navy incredible capability. It also would’ve cost an incredible amount of money. Developing a swing wing, ATF class, Navy fighter is no small engineering challenge. It wouldn’t have been just a swing wing F-22. It was to be a new VG airframe which bore a family resemblance to the F-22. All the things that make a successful carrier aircraft would be there, along with stealth and ultra performance. Thing is, would all that be necessary for the maritime superiority mission? At the time (early 90’s) the F-14D was completing development, and the Navy was gearing up to acquire over 500 of them, either new builds or converted A models. Now, the F-14D wasn’t cheap, but was alot more affordable than the NATF. It also offered first class fighter capability, and was a proven carrier capable design. The decision to not pursue the NATF , in my humble opinion, was the correct one. Unfortunately, the decision to ultimately pursue the F/A-18E/F wasn’t the best solution.
Matthew Schilling says
The Super Hornet saved naval aviation from extinction. Like the B-52 and F-15, it’s such an adaptable platform, it will probably be introducing new weapons to the carrier deck after the last F-35C has headed to the boneyard.
Al Davis says
As I have seen in the past…..this aircraft will eventually become reality and it will be more expensive than it would have been if it was developed and placed into service years ago!…..the old saying applies in this situation: Pay me now or pay me later either way gonna have to pay. Bottom line the Navy is going to have to get its act together when it comes to procurement and maintenance of its weapons systems at all levels!
History often shows that overwhelming numbers often trump technical superiority. I’m not sure we are on the right path with such expensive to build and expensive to maintain hardware. Somehow a balance must be struck between the cost of a weapon system and the number we can afford to field.
Chuck Bryant says
A true shame that true “inter-Branch” cooperation on such programs can’t be reached. Harnessing the development potential across U.S. military branches AND contractors is undoubtedly a mere fantasy of the “holy grail” of interagency cooperation.
Our potential global adversaries seize upon this fact by building mass quantities of perhaps older but tried and true technologies, or they simply steal proposed designs and technology.
In a world where wise use of resources and technology reign supreme in manufacturing, it seems to be paramount in the final analysis, then it true interoperability among service branches and manufacturers/suppliers, etc would bring the overwhelming costs of the projects down relatively quickly due to rapid scalability.
Oh yes, I remember keeping tabs on this scenario back in the nineties. Even then, I had always believed that an updated stealthy version of the F 15 with a new nose, canopy, smaller air intakes which are integrated more smoothly into the fuselage like that of the F 22, with the two aft vertical stabilizers slanted outward, and the dual engine wells/nossels modified from rounded, to a more stealthy form and, of course advanced avionics would have been a more better fitting and less costly choice for the Navy in my opinion. By the way, I honestly haven’t been much of a fan of the F 35. Lastly not to mention, our F 15s are designed with bombing and fighter superiority capabilities. Imagine a stealthy updated version with these capabilities.
Charles Foster Malloy says
What’s the difference, really, in what you describe- a Navalized F-15 and what they have – a F/A-18E/F Superhornets ?
Remember the Navy had its own projects (such as the A-12). And ultimately all those projects failed. A combination of costs the Navy didn’t want and the infancy of the stealth materials.
Also Air Force-Navy collaboration is what happened with the F-35. Here we are with a good fighter, 30 years down the road. Something to be said for too many cooks in the
Charles Foster Malloy says
Yeah, but an F-35B with cranked delta wings (to enhance range/capacity) could be exactly what the doctor ordered to fight China from the decks of Carriers. They might even be able to add a gun, maybe. Alternatively, as someone pointed out, they extended the wings with the F-35C to make it work off carriers, and the F/A-18s (both generations) have fixed wings too. They all work fine off carriers.
Why not then an extended range / capacity F-35 or Sea Rapter (updated) ?
The Navy is funny, to the point of being pig headed & self defeating. Will they screw up the F/A-XX too ?
The picture looks more like a variable sweep wing F-35 with twin engines.
No mention of the Navy’s canceled A-12 program?
Leon Fields says
the fighter pilots want what they are comfortable with great expectations . they are the ones who has to fly them ,,for air superiority let them make the decision not some general to set behind a desk with no experience to tell some one to do their jobs they are the true PILOTS
Daniel W Berend says
“thanks to a combination of low observability, high speed, and acrobatic performance.”
I believe you meant “aerobatic performance.” Acrobatics is what gymnasts do. It’s there in the word root.
Marek Staněk says
That ONLY applies to English. In Slavic languages acrobatics means both, And if you want to ve Very specific about it, you use the combo “Aerial acrobatics”.
“only offered a slight improvement over the Navy’s existing carrier-based platforms”
Uh, hello? STEALTH?
Yeah but how stealthy is it if the wings move? I’m gonna say not very.
George M Owens says
The Navy should fly the same variant of the F35 as the Marines. The evolution of STVOL technology, into a supersonic stealth aircraft should relegate catapults to a secondary status. Think of the reduced stress on airframes with the demise of catapults and arresting gear.
The Unknown Factor is will the 6th gen fighters make the concept of the Aircraft Carrier entirely obsolete. Let’s face facts, an Aircraft Carrier makes for one hell of a target, and our adversaries obviously are designing weapons to kill the carriers long before they arrive in theater.
I’m a big supporter of the F-35C for the Marines, less capable allies, expeditionary forces on small forward operating bases.
But catapults enable more range and weapons load. There’s also the greater cost and complexity of the VTOL system to take into account, which adds nothing to in flight performance and exists solely as a way for the plane to accommodate the limitations of less capable, catapult-less carriers. Finally, the transition from steam to electro magnetic catapults and arresting gear will significantly reduce the stresses and wear & tear.
The F-35C has better range, bigger payload/bomb capacity, larger wings etc than the F-35B.
Kewl ToyZ says
I still don’t understand how the Airforce decided without the Navy in mind? YF23 airframe was a much more viable carrier potential. Carriers are the most formidable arm for projecting power around the globe. I just shake my head at the wasted money.
there are some questionable claims in the article, such as the F-14 being faster than the F-22. The F-22 can purportedly supercruise at Mach 1.6 with weapons loaded. The F-14 could not. The reported “top speed” of a “clean” fighter is irrelevant because it won’t be “clean” in combat and it can only maintain its top speed for a few moments.
George M Owens says
Gee, dont let a little thing like truth get in the way.
The F-14d would routinely hit Mach 2+ loaded with full missile load out. It was a Mach 1.5+ as a strike fighter (bombs and missiles)
The disadvantage came when it came to stealth it had none.