Were the U.S. and Australian workhorse F-111 Aardvark bomber retired too early?
Upon first examination, this simple question may seem rhetorical to an extent, as the bomber first blasted onto the scene as far back as its first flight in 1964. After a successful performance in Vietnam and other deployments, the F-111 was retired by the U.S. Air Force in 1998. Interestingly, the F-111 Aardvark was partially converted into more of an F-111G fighter aircraft following the arrival of the B1-B bomber.
F-111 Aardvark in Multi-Role Action
As a multi-role aircraft performing air attack, strategic bombing, reconnaissance, and other critical functions the F-111 Aardvark flew with both the U.S. Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force for decades.
The aircraft has an interesting “hybrid” kind of mission set and therefore, perhaps appropriately, looks a bit like a hybrid cross between a fighter, bomber, and spy plane with components of each. Pictures of the aircraft show air-to-air and air-to-ground types of weapons on pylons beneath the wings, yet the overall shape also seems to resemble the B1-B bomber with a well-sized fuselage with space for air-dropped bombs. This mix of combat capabilities did prove successful for the F-111 in Vietnam and arguably lends evidence to suggest that the aircraft could have flown well into this century.
There are several schools of thought in this equation, and there is not one simple answer. Certainly, in terms of pure time, the F-16, F-15, B-52, and A-10 are decades-old airframes that have exceeded their anticipated service life by decades.
Upgrades to the 1980s-era F-15, for instance, make the airframe essentially and altogether a different aircraft than it was at its inception. New high-speed computing, Active Electronically Scanned Array radar, communications technology, and weapons have brought each of these aircraft well into this century and beyond. In fact, the F-15, F-16, and B-52 will likely fly into the 2040s.
Particularly when airframes are reinforced with structural enhancements, they can remain viable for decades beyond expectation. Longevity is compounded by the integration of new avionics, weaponry, sensing, and computing.
The F-16, for instance, has been retrofitted with several F-35-esque technologies. Both the F-15 and F-16 are expected to fly into the 2040s and perhaps even beyond, yet some still voice concern about a “geriatric” Air Force and a need to introduce more new platforms. There is conventional wisdom to suggest that legacy platforms can only be upgraded “so much,” and therefore inevitably become obsolete.
Addressing this challenge has been a long-standing delicate balance for an Air Force introducing the F-35, B-21, F-15EX while simultaneously working to divest the A-10, launch a 6th-gen program, and sustain F-15s, F-16s, and B-52s for decades.
As for the F-111 Aardvark, it certainly may have lived several decades beyond its U.S. Air Force sunset years in the 1990s, as evidenced by the RAAF’s decision to keep the aircraft until 2010.
A mix of aircraft in the fleet force, budget considerations, and the pace of technological progress present an interwoven mix of variables to consider.
Looking at the evidence, however, and the continued success of the other legacy aircraft that have been extended by years and thousands of flight hours, there does seem to be a strong argument for why the F-111 could have maintained its relevance years beyond its final U.S. Air Force retirement in 1998.
A lasting presence of an aircraft like the F-111 would have offered some interesting tactical options to the Air Force because although it certainly was not built in a way that would enable it to operate in a high-threat, contested, great-power combat environment, the aircraft could certainly prove useful in combat areas where the U.S. Air Force maintains air superiority.
As a multirole hybrid type of aircraft, the Aardvark could bring bomber, fighter jet, and reconnaissance in a single plane, thus reducing risk and the number of aircraft, manpower, and sorties needed in a permissive environment where the U.S. has air dominance.
An air commander, for example, would not have to necessarily deploy a B1-B, F-15, and J-Stars for each function but could rather, depending upon mission requirements, use an F-111 Aardvark to achieve the mission spectrum.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.