As has been discussed before, the U.S. Government tends to favor multi-taskers in the process of aircraft procurement. The more missions a proposed platform can perform well, the better the chance it will be selected for development and deployment. But one could argue that it’s possible to take the “multi-role” concept too far. The government did on at least one occasion, and it resulted in ruined careers, a lot of fighting between the services, and one of the most controversial aircraft to enter the inventory.
In the 1960’s, the Air Force was looking to replace the Republic F-105 Thunderchief. The Thud was classified as a fighter bomber, but the “fighter” part should have been typed in an itty-bitty font. It was pretty much just a bomber. It was fast and could carry a reasonable payload. And despite having a single engine, it was an extremely tough aircraft (typical of Republic designs).
Meanwhile, the Navy wanted to replace the F-4 Phantom II as its front-line fleet-defense fighter. In an age when missiles and enemy aircraft were becoming more advanced, it was (correctly) believed that the Phantom didn’t have the radar or missile technology to provide adequate force projection (and force protection).
Simultaneously, the services had been researching the feasibility of new technologies, most notably (for our lesson) swing-wing technology. The Navy was interested because unswept wings gave good low-speed lift, best for slinging aircraft off the deck. Swept wings were best for high-speed travel and ease of flight at low altitude, along with a slightly smaller radar signature.
Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, looking to save some money, ordered the Air Force and Navy to work together and build a common platform. He might as well have been asking Democrats and Republicans to come together on taxes and health care reform, because that’s how likely a solution was.
In defense of the two departments, it should be noted that each had a specification that was substantially different. The Navy needed fleet defense, which in the 60’s meant good range, Mach-2+ speed, solid fighter capability, and the ability to carry a massive radar and fire the just-as-massive Phoenix missile. Most importantly, the plane had to be light enough to be shot off a carrier.
The Air Force also needed Mach-2 speed and a powerful radar. But it also required the ability to carry a substantial bombload, fly well over Mach 1 at very low altitude (for the penetration mission), and employ computer-controlled terrain following. It did not need to be carrier-launched.
It was called the TFX project (Tactical Fighter eXperimental), was awarded to General Dynamics, and was designated the F-111. Initially, A-models would go to the Air Force and B-models to the Navy. The A-model flew for the first time on December 21, 1964 and McNamara had high hopes that both services would benefit from the new swing-wing, twin-engined plane. His hopes would be dashed in rather comical fashion.
The Navy needed a takeoff weight of 50,000 pounds, and the F-111 wasn’t even close. So the Defense Department initiated the Weight Improvement Program. The 111 was still too heavy, so along came the Super Weight Improvement Program. It still wasn’t enough, so there was (I’m not making this up) the Colossal Weight Improvement Program. At this point the Navy had a prototype aircraft with plastic gauges that was still too heavy and couldn’t even perform as well as the Phantom it was scheduled to replace. The Navy finally told McNamara to forget it and went with Grumman’s F-14 Tomcat (also a swing-wing platform), which turned out to be a great move.
The Vietnam War would give the F-111, officially named the Aardvark, its first taste of combat. It would not be a good experience, but that’s a story for another day.
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