YF-23 Could Set the Stage for Northrop Grumman’s Next Generation Fighter Proposal

A YF-23 prototype at the Western Museum of Flight in Torrance, CA. Copyright: Alan Kenny, 2013

In January of this year, Northrop Grumman let word slip that they were planning on developing a sixth-generation fighter for the U.S. Air Force, serving as a third competitor between established fighter giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone, especially considering the involvement Northrop and Grumman (prior to their merger) had in the military aviation world. Northrop was responsible for the stealthiest strategic bomber, the B-2 Spirit, and they’re back at it, vying for the USAF’s Long Range Strike Bomber contract. Grumman brought about one of the most beloved fighter jets of all time, the F-14 Tomcat carrier air defense aircraft. That pretty much speaks for itself.

Currently, the American Department of Defense has two 6th generation projects planned- the Next Generation Tactical Aircraft (for the USAF, replacing the F-15C/D Eagle and eventually the F-22 Raptor), and the Next Generation Air Dominance fighter (for the USN, replacing the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet). Tom Vice, president of Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, was clear with Defense News that NG would be exploring radically-different designs, challenging the conventional architecture we’ve seen thus far F-15s, F-16 Fighting Falcons, F-22s and F-35 Lightning IIs, just as they did with their YF-23 Black Widow prototype when competing against Lockheed Martin’s YF-22 during the Advanced Tactical Fighter competition. NG has two separate teams working on proposals for both the Air Force and Navy next-gen fighters, which will be distinct from one another. That last sentence probably elicited a huge sigh of relief from those of you who maintain a degree of frustration with the Joint Strike Fighter program.

The only two Northrop-McDonnell Douglas YF-23 prototypes in flight. (U.S. Air Force photograph/released)

The only two Northrop-McDonnell Douglas YF-23 prototypes in flight. (U.S. Air Force photograph/released)

In fact, if you’re wondering what NG’s fighter concept will look like, you probably won’t have to look very far. In developing a next-generation fighter, defense contractors take a look at the aircraft they want to eventually replace, and build upon its strengths while mitigating weakness. In the case of the F-22, Lockheed Martin took a number of cues from the McDonnell Douglas F-15C/D. The F-15 itself was the progeny of F-4 Phantom II, the first true air superiority fighter. So it only makes sense that to develop the sixth generation of air superiority fighters, Northrop Grumman will look to their near-win candidate of the fifth generation.

The YF-23 was by all accounts a very capable aircraft, though the Air Force judged it to be a risky investment. Co-built with McDonnell Douglas, it was stealthier than its competitor, and could achieve higher speeds, especially while supercruising. The exact figures are classified at the moment but that should still give you an idea of what Northrop Grumman is capable of. Maneuverability, however, was another issue that led the Air Force to choose the YF-22, which featured two-dimensional thrust vectoring giving it unparalleled supermaneuverability, a factor that gives the Raptor the edge in dogfighting. Northrop Grumman’s Next Generation Tactical Aircraft proposal could, therefore, very well be a reworking of the YF-23, with newer computers and more advanced weapon systems, stealthier skins and powerful engines. Time and time again, just as we’re about ready to give up on close-in dogfighting, it becomes all the more relevant. So multi-dimensional thrust vectoring might just be another capability of the proposal. In addition to his mention of NG exploring a tailless design, Tom Vice also hinted at the possibility of fielding optionally-manned fighters as well. Lastly, the U.S. DoD has, in the recent past, indicated that directed energy weaponry (a.k.a. lasers) could potentially be ready to be deployed aboard smaller aircraft by the time the 6th gen Air Force and Navy fighters are fielded. Need I say more?


About Ian D'Costa (240 Articles)
Ian is the editor-in-chief of the Tactical Air Network. His work has been republished and quoted in a number of publications, including The Toronto Star, Airsoc, Business Insider and The Aviationist. You can reach him at idcosta@tacairnet.com.

24 Comments on YF-23 Could Set the Stage for Northrop Grumman’s Next Generation Fighter Proposal

  1. Les Adams // March 23, 2015 at 23:05 // Reply

    Dont forget my old plane. The A6. Flew in all kinds of weather. I worked on the avionics systems 1970-1973.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. YF-23 was superior to F-22 in all aspects of performance, maintanance, and cost. NG needs to be sure it gets the “political flak” out of the way before entering the competition so the fate iof the YF-23 is not repeated.


    • Two biggest reasons it lost; lack of thrust vectoring (not a deal breaker in my book) & the biggest part was the tiled used on the engine outlets to dissipate heat & eliminate the IR signature. The tiles were the same kind used on the shuttle & had to be hand layed. This meant it couldn’t be mass produced. There was no way to lay the tiles automatically.

      I still think it was a mistake to not put it into production in the proposed bomber configuration. I also think they should have followed through with the F-22NA (Navy carrier variant) it never made it past the concept stage. But I think the thrust vectoring would have been great for carrier STO. Should have mass produced the F-22 in different variants & left the F-35B to replace the AV-B.


  3. I love how in case of JSF that can’t dogfight with any of it’s peers maneuvering isn’t a concern – it’s subpar stealth is supposed to suffice, yet with YF-23, which is infinitely harder to detect, it was a deal breaker…


    • The F-35 can’t dogfight? Says who?


      • Trent Davis // September 26, 2015 at 16:59 //

        Who says the F-35 can’t dogfight? Well that was said and well spoken by a test pilot who just recently put the F-35 through it’s paces in a mock dogfight against a F-16, and the results and report that came out of it was embarrassing. The F-35 could not keep up the F-16, and the F-16 just flat out embarrassed the
        F-35, a fighter plane that the F-35 is suppose to replace!
        The mock dogfight test took place sometime this past May, June, July, maybe August 2015. Anyone who reads the test pilot’s report of the dogfight can sense his disappointment in the F-35.
        I think the Pentagon should had chosen Boeing Aircraft version of the JSF, but what can you expect when you build a jet fighter for the Air Force, Marines, Navy and several foreign countries.
        You just can’t make a”one for all” jet fighter that supports everyone!!


      • The “dogfight” took place in January, and the test cycle wasn’t to check up the F-35’s ACM abilities but rather software-controlled handling characteristics. There’s a lot of misinformation floating around, centred on that test, perpetuated by a number of websites out there. We read the leaked report and the surrounding background, released by the Air Combat Command evaluators and nothing indicates that the inference that the cycle was for the purpose of testing the F-35’s ability to dogfight is true in any way.


      • RedStatePatriot // April 14, 2016 at 19:53 //

        You might want to stop reading David Axe’s crap over at WiB… the so called “dogfight” never happened, and Axe is a huge F35 hater… he takes every little issue and blows it way out of proportion to reality. The best actual dog-fighting information we have for F35 is from the Norwegian Pilot that has many thousands of hours in F16s and laughs at anyone that can not out fight an F16 in the F35. He has essentially adopted the F18’s dog fighting style and applied it to the F35. You can read a synopsis of his comments here:


        Liked by 1 person

    • RedStatePatriot // June 16, 2015 at 00:46 // Reply

      You do realize the YF23 and the F35 are not aircraft filling the same roles right? Or course their requirements are different… you know kinda like how a race car and a mini van have different requirements.


    • ATF was almost 30 years ago. Things have changed since then, what was hot then could be not-that-hot today, and vice-versa.


  4. Let’s go start building them already the US should always be no1 and on top of the game


  5. Lt. Col. Bob Ross, USAF Retired // December 31, 2015 at 13:35 // Reply

    Like the “Tweet,” the F-35, especially the F-35b, is famous for converting jet fuel into noise.

    Bob in Beaufort


  6. fuck to russians // January 15, 2016 at 04:17 // Reply

    they could put a 2d tvc and a small laser to destroy incoming missiles and it would be a 6th gen fighter with GE120 engines


  7. I think the Navy, Air force and Marines considered all the alternatives and drawbacks of the F-35! But like the British version of the VTOL, I think it’s called, it has limitations, one might be its limitation to one engine, thereby reducing its speed capability! The F-35 doesn’t seem to have that superb sleekness of the YF-23 or even the F-22, maybe because of the introduction of the down nozzles, and with the added internal bulk, important for the VTOL capability, but which was additional baggage, and bound to affect the chassis! Then the maneuverability aspect seems to be a question mark also, maybe because of the added weight & lack of vectoring engine(s)! The bulk just seems to make it a “Better” target! I am almost sure it has a Mach 3 capability, but with the new “Enemy” fighters, its overall effectiveness troubles me! I believe in the Avionics, though I know nothing about them, but trying to do too much by adding the VTOL ability may be a problem! But, IMO, the F-35 will not add that much to our defense capability! And with the supposed faster and more sophisticated “Enemy” anti-aircraft missiles, will the F-35 be able to avoid them? My 2 cents might be only worth 1 cent, but that is my opinion, but could easily be reversed by the more knowledgeable members of this board?


  8. when come the f-20 and yf 23 back .


  9. Paul Metz, the test pilot of both the yf-23 and yf-22(the only pilot to fly both planes) has stated “the yf-23 can perform and come through any angle of attack, even backwards. The only advantage the yf-22 had was during the post stall arena from TVC”. The yf-22’s TVC aids only in pitch and is only 2 dimensional. Raptors have been defeated by Typhoon’s and F-16s. Flankers with 3 dimensional TVC have also been defeated by F-16’s. Do the math, TVC are not the end all be all of ACM. The yf-23 loss was purely political just like all military acquisition. Just look at Dragon skin armor vs the Interceptor body armor. Having a better product does not guarantee you will win the contract, lining the pockets of politicians will.

    The yf-23 was known to be stealthier, faster, and perform better in the trans-sonic arena where the majority of ACM takes place, not slow air show speeds where everyone gets dazzled by TVC.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought another reason was due to the heat tiles on the engine outlets. Because these had to be hand placed, it wasn’t feasible to mass produce. Of course if we had know the original 400 would be cut to 187, that wouldn’t have been a real issue. I’ve always thought the YF-23 was the better route to go. You know, Congress is investigating the possibility of the cost to restart F-22 production, due to the delays with the F-35. Probably should have invested that money into just producing F-23. It’s not like you can have too many 5th gens.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree 100% percent with you Magestic.

        I believe N/G was going for 100% full aspect stealth(both radar and IR) that was easily achieved thanks in part to the tile outlets. But the 23 was only a prototype, so who knows if the tile outlets would have ever made production. If you compare the yf-22 to the production f-22, other than the basic layout it was totally redesigned. So we will never know.

        Yea i am not a huge fan of the JSF. Still has alot to prove. Lockheed intentionally made the project hard to kill. What i mean by that is they spread production all over the US, so if anyone ever tried to kill it you would have all these politicians saying “hell no” because they would be losing jobs(and campaign money from their pockets provided by Lockheed lobbyist) from their districts. So despite all its flaws any attempt to kill the program will fail and we are obviously stuck with an expensive money pit. Its really hard to get an objective view on the JSF, since anyone associated with the program is trying to sell a product and secure future employment from Lockheed.

        But reviews i have seen from veteran pilots who have given thoughts on it have all been negative. Those kind of reviews i do put faith in.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Let me share this gem with you, I’ve been dying to see an F-35 in person. The best I could do is the local AFB had an airshow this weekend. It was going to be on a static display in a hangar, across from the F-22 also on static. The local AFB is an F-16 base only. So I’m psyched because I really want to see the F-35! We look everywhere,but can’t find it. The F-22 pilot didn’t have a clue, people handing out programs didn’t have a clue & referred me to the ordnance guys, they had no clue. Finally a lady member of the crew walks back into their area & they told her, she says “oh, the F-35 cancelled because of the possibility of rain.”. I said “are you serious?”. She said “absolutely, no joke, they cancelled last minute stating possible rain. Which is strange since it’s a static in a hangar.”. So, it’s over budget, behind schedule, super stealth, crazy sensor fusion, yet all our enemies need is a garden hose! I can hear it now “the 35’s are inbound, get the fire trucks ready!”. How ridiculous is that, it can’t fly in the rain or something?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Morpheus // June 3, 2016 at 20:18 //

        I think what really applies in contract management. Northrop had the B-2 stealth bomber which cost several billion a plane to ruin their YF-23 chances. There is no way the stealth bomber should have cost as much as it did. Lockheed has the cost over runs for the F-35 which probably cost them the LRSB contract. At least the F-35 isn’t going to end up costing a billion+ a copy like the B-2 Stealth Bomber.


  10. Magestic12- wow, your story left me completely speechless. But with the history of the JSF program i guess i shouldnt be surprised. What a mess.


  11. The YF 23 was the future. Do not get me wrong that the F 22 is not good. The fact is we need a variety of ideas. Why not have the YF 23 return and have them work together? Every plane has a role. The YF 23 was a better plane as we all know. It’s just at the time they were scared of what may happen. Well, it happened…..the JSF.


  12. Rick Rumney // August 14, 2016 at 13:17 // Reply

    I don’t understand why people are comparing the the F-35 with the YF-23. The two aircraft were built and meant for very diff. missions. I remember talk that the USAF version was to compliment the F-22 in Air Superiority missions. I remember the YF22/23 being talked about during my first tour in the US Navy 85-89. The F-35 in the early 90’s and i remember Boeing losing because they had to remove panels for its aircraft to takeoff vertically. New tech, means huge delays. I didn’t think it would take 20 years plus to get this bird in Squadron service. i remember the YV-22 Osprey took 20 years for the tech to catch up. When it finally went into squadron service it still had major problems that cost many lives. A lot of tombstone tech. Today its forgotten because it works. The JSF should not have been offered to our allies before the bird was flying in US service. then others could say, I want that ship! I think it will work out in the end; I’m not a big fan of all US Armed Forces having the same aircraft to train pilots and ground crews to save money and replacement parts. I’m a Navy man; F-8 Gun Fighter. A-7D, F-14 Tom Cat, A-1 Sky Hawk. The F-22 could have been tapered to Naval Service. I believe the YF-23 should have also been built alongside the -22 as a Fighter/Bomber. But i don’t work in procurement. I just pay the taxes!


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