Stop Talking About the Not-So-Mythical YF-23 Stealth Fighter

 In China, Afghanistan, CIS, Russia, Iraq, P5

Here’s What You Need To Remember: The F‑22 won’t end ter­ror­ism. It won’t stop Russia from exert­ing its influ­ence along its periph­ery in order to work out the nation­al trauma of past wars. It won't stop China's explosive economic growth and com­mis­er­ate mil­i­tary expan­sion. It won’t reverse America’s dis­as­trous inva­sion of Iraq or bring a tidy end to the nearly 20-year-old U.S. war in Afghanistan.

A stealth fight­er demon­stra­tor that last flew in 1994 has enjoyed a cul­tur­al resur­gence in recent years. But the YF-23’s renais­sance reflects a per­ni­cious kind of mag­i­cal think­ing that actu­al­ly under­mines America’s nation­al defense.

The YF-23 was Northrop Grumman’s entry in the U.S. Air Force’s Advanced Tactical Fighter com­pe­ti­tion that aimed to pick a new fight­er to replace the F-15.

Northrop built two of the twin-tail, twin-engine demon­stra­tors. They flew oppo­site Lockheed Martin’s own YF-22 demon­stra­tors in a series of eval­u­a­tions in 1990 and 1991. In August 1991, the Air Force select­ed the YF-22. Lockheed devel­oped the YF-22 into the F‑22, which final­ly entered front-line ser­vice in 2005.

Northrop donat­ed the YF-23s to NASA, which ulti­mate­ly passed them to muse­ums. The planes flew to the space agen­cy’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California some time in 1994. It was the last time they would fly.

More than two decades later, the YF-23s are pop­u­lar sub­jects of a cer­tain brand of “what-if” jour­nal­ism. “Many ana­lysts … have argued that Northrop’s YF-23 was truly the better plane,” Kyle Mizokami wrote at Popular Mechanics. “What would an oper­a­tional F‑23 have looked like?” Dave Majumdar asked at this very site.

In the ulti­mate expres­sion of YF-23 what-if-ism, Tyler Rogoway at The War Zone col­lab­o­rat­ed with dig­i­tal artist Adam Burch to pro­duce some gor­geous con­cep­tu­al art depict­ing an oper­a­tional “F‑23A” ver­sion of the YF-23. Rogoway explained that he wanted “to show the world exact­ly what the F‑23A would [have], or at least could have, been.”

Majumdar, Mizokami and Rogoway are pro­fes­sion­als. They are my col­leagues and, in some cases, my friends. I don’t mean to attack them. In writ­ing about the YF-23, they’re respond­ing to demand as much as they’re cre­at­ing it.

The mythol­o­giz­ing of the YF-23 isn’t their fault. Rather, it’s the symp­tom of a dan­ger­ous belief that’s wide­spread and deeply-rooted in American cul­ture, and in mil­i­tary cir­cles in par­tic­u­lar.

That tech­nol­o­gy will save us. And if tech­nol­o­gy isn’t saving us, it’s because we devel­oped the wrong tech. “Technology shapes thought even as it becomes a sub­sti­tute for it,” wrote William Astore, a teacher and retired Air Force colonel.

The F‑22 is an effec­tive, if out­ra­geous­ly expen­sive, war­plane. The type has flown hun­dreds if not thou­sands of combat mis­sions tar­get­ing Islamic State mil­i­tants in Syria. Critics right­ly have ques­tioned whether former defense sec­re­tary Robert Gates erred when, in 2009, he ended pro­duc­tion of the F‑22 at just 187 copies — far fewer than the Air Force said it needed.

But the F‑22 won’t end ter­ror­ism. It won’t stop Russia from exert­ing its influ­ence along its periph­ery in order to work out the nation­al trauma of past wars. It won't stop China's explosive economic growth and com­mis­er­ate mil­i­tary expan­sion. It won’t reverse America’s dis­as­trous inva­sion of Iraq or bring a tidy end to the nearly 20-year-old U.S. war in Afghanistan.

For all its high-tech­nol­o­gy, for all the time, energy and money the United States has poured into its devel­op­ment, the F‑22 isn’t saving us.

So it per­haps is nat­ur­al that we’d ask whether the F‑22 was the right choice. Maybe, just maybe, the F‑23 could’ve suc­ceed­ed where the F‑22 failed. What if the Air Force had picked the other stealth fight­er design? What if America were stronger? What if we were safer? What if the whole world were a better place?

“Americans tend to see tech­nol­o­gy as a panacea,” Astore wrote. “Even deadly tech­nol­o­gy.”  When nat­ur­al and his­toric forces prove, as they so often have done, that tech isn’t a panacea — that the planet will warm, that soci­eties will build walls to keep out the others, that fear more than any other impulse will drive human deci­sion­mak­ing — Americans blame the tech, and look around for a replace­ment.

Even if that means look­ing into the past at a long-ground­ed pro­to­type air­plane and imag­in­ing an alter­na­tive present where that air­plane kept flying … and pre­sum­ably changed the whole world for the better.

The YF-23 won’t save us.

This arti­cle first appeared in 2018.

Image: Reuters.

National Interest source|articles

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