Meet the YF-23: While there is little doubt that the F-22 Raptor is the best air superiority fighter of its time, another airframe came close to once taking that title.
The Raptor was selected as the winner of the U.S. Air Force’s Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) competition, beating out Northrop/McDonnel Douglas’ YF-23 prototype.
Although the runner-up airframe now rests in the collection of National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright/Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, the experimental aircraft should not be dismissed as a second-class fighter.
A brief history of the YF-23 experimental fighter jet
After American officials discovered that the Soviet Union had developed its Su-27 and MiG-29 fighter prototypes in the late 1970s, the U.S. Air Force became weary that the maneuverability edge its fighters once held over its USSR counterparts may be dwindling.
Specifically, the Air Force wanted to dedicate a program to craft a replacement airframe for the F-15 Eagle platform.
This new airframe, intended to go head-to-head with the Soviet Union’s new fighters, would have to prioritize air-to-air combat as its primary function. Within a few years, the Air Force announced it would hold a competition between the country’s leading aircraft manufacturers to develop this new fighter.
The U.S. Navy simultaneously announced that it planned to use a derivative of the competition’s winning airframe to head its own Navalized Advanced Tactical Fighter (NAFT) program as well.
The quest to develop the USAF’s best air-to-air combat fighter …
All the major manufacturers, including General Dynamics, Northrop, Rockwell, and Lockheed drafted proposals for the AFT competition. Ultimately, Northrop and McDonnell Douglas decided to form a team, as did Lockheed, Boeing and General Dynamics. Northrop developed two different YF-23A prototypes during the competition.
The first variant was debuted in 1990 and took its maiden flight shortly after. Dubbed “Black Widow II,” the gray-colored prototype was painted with a red hourglass marking – similar to the marking on the underside of a black widow spider. The second variant of the YF-23 was painted gray, hence its nickname “Gray Ghost.”
Unlike Lockheed Martin’s Raptor prototype, the YF-23 did not possess thrust vectoring for aerodynamic control. The Northrop team made this decision in an effort to lessen the weight of its prototype while increasing its stealth. Both YF-23 models were reportedly fully undetectable by nearly any radar system in existence. The prototypes also reportedly sported a “supercruise” function, enabling the airframes to achieve supersonic flight with a maximum speed of Mach 2.2.
The YF-23 came very close to matching the legendary abilities of the Raptor
Overall, the YF-23 came close to matching Lockheed’s YF-22’s capabilities.
As detailed in an earlier 19FortyFive piece, “In many ways, it certainly did its ‘best,’ as it had a top speed of 1,451mph to the YF-22’s 1,599mph, but the Northrop design had a longer range and a higher ceiling – 2,796 miles maximum range and a ceiling of 65,000 feet. By contrast, the YF-22 had a range of 2,000 miles and a ceiling of 50,000 feet.”
Although the Raptor has certainly earned its ATF win by becoming the Air Force’s arguably best fighter ever, the YF-23 was close on its heels.
Both YF-23 prototypes remained in storage until the mid-1990s when the airframes were ultimately moved to museums. Some rumors suggest that despite the YF-23’s “retirement,” a classified strike version of the airframe was developed as a multirole combat aircraft.
Author Biography and Expertise
Maya Carlin is a Senior Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.