A-12 Avenger: Why America’s Enemies Are All Glad This Super Naval Strike Fighter Was Never Built - Part Two

Continued from Part One

One of the A-12 program’s most fundamental strengths turned out to be a major weakness, which was that unlike the F-22 which was a relatively conventional type of aircraft as a fighter with a similar layout and role to its predecessor the F-15, the A-12 was a revolutionary new design and as a result its development was pursued in great secrecy. As a result the aircraft drew considerable criticism from the civilian government particularly due to ongoing uncertainties regarding its cost. 

The fighter was cancelled two years after the Cold War’s end in 1991 as part of a decision by Defence Secretary Richard 'Dick' Cheney, at a time when the Warsaw Pact had recently collapsed, the U.S. had a string of new military bases in the Middle East and relations with the Soviet Union had improved as Moscow acquiesced to the prospects of a Western led order. 

Although the A-12 appeared to be an unnecessary asset in the Cold War’s aftermath, with carrier strike groups not expected to go up against anything approaching a peer level challenger, the reemergence of tensions with major military powers following the turn of the century such as China, Russia and North Korea meant that the Navy increasingly suffered for its lack of a survivable high endurance strike aircraft 

By cancelling the A-12 program the U.S. Navy surrender a long prized capability which would later cause serious issues for the continued viability of the carrier fleet against high end adversaries - an asset which would have otherwise been a cause for much concern in Pyongyang, Moscow, Beijing and the capitals of other potential targets. Compared to the A-12, the F-18E could cover under 20% of the area - an issue which was brought to the fore when the F-14 was retired from 2006 due to its high operational costs. 

As Bob Kress and Read Admiral Paul Gillcrist, USN (Ret.), observed regarding the much smaller new fighter in 2002, “Though it’s a wizzy little airshow performer with a nice, modern cockpit, it has only 36 percent of the F-14’s payload/range capability. 

The F-18E Super Hornet has been improved but still has, at best, 50 percent of the F-14’s capability to deliver a fixed number of bombs (in pounds) on target. This naturally means that the carrier radius of influence drops to 50 percent of what it would have been with the same number of F-14s. As a result, the area of influence (not radius) drops to 23 percent!” Next to the A-12 the comparison was far less favourable still and showed a major loss from the stealth jet’s retirement. 

The commissioning of the F-35C carrier based stealth fighter, while finally providing the U.S. Navy with a stealth fighter for its carrier air wings, still far from resolved the problem that the A-12’s cancelation had caused. The fighter had less than half the payload of the A-12, and with a much smaller airframe had only a fraction of the range. Furthermore, the A-12’s flying wing design was almost certain to be considerably stealthier, with the F-35’s radar cross section being similar to the of the F-117 from the 1980s. The lack of a long range stealthy carrier based strike platform would be particularly critical following the Barak Obama administration's Pivot to Asia initiative, as carrier air wings will be forced to deploy within range of a very large number of Chinese long range anti ship missile systems to be able to launch sorties against Chinese targets. 

Had the A-12 been in service, carrier groups would have retained the high endurance aircraft needed to launch sorties from much safer ranges which the F-35 and F-18E, although cheaper, were never deigned to be able to fly. The Navy is still looking for a possible replacement three decades latter, including an unmanned long range strike drone or the use of MQ-25 drone tankers to refuel F-35s in the air - although the latter option only partly solves the problem. 

As China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy moves to commission its own supercarriers, it is highly possible that a high endurance strike aircraft will be deployed from their decks for similar roles to the A-12. With three decades between them technologically, however, and with China investing heavily in stealth drone technologies, a Chinese carrier based radar evading strike platform will very likely be unmanned. 

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