In 1991, the Pentagon chose YF-22 as the winner of the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) competition, even though there are people claiming to this day that its main competitor YF-23 was a better aircraft at the moment. YF-22 was more maneuverable, but YF-23 has superior supercruising speed even with Pratt & Whitney YF-119 engines. When equipped with more powerful Pratt & Whitney YF-120, it could easily exceed cruise speed of Mach 1.8.
Although YF-22 final production version reached that speed as well, its smaller gas thanks severely limited its range. Raptor pilots find it not very practical in daily operations. “Supercruise is impressive on paper but not very practical in a fighter with limited fuel,” a senior Air Force F-22 pilot said. “I would much rather have an aircraft that accelerates and gains energy back quickly than one that supercruises.”
The top speed of both models was the same, about Mach 2.2. It was limited by their geometry, which in turn was derived for the stealth requirements Pentagon put in place for ATF. F-22 Raptor even has its top speed limited at Mach 2, due to the fact that its stealth coating is prone to fall apart at higher speeds, thus jeopardizing one of the plane’s most important characteristics. Northrop’s version didn’t have such problems. So how did YF-23, with its higher cruising speed, superior range, and arguably better stealth characteristics managed to lose the ATF contract?
There were several factors. We’ll start with the most obvious first, politics. It is Washington, after all, and politics can’t be avoided. After all the clashes over B-2 bomber and A-12 naval strike aircraft, Northrop wasn’t really popular in Pentagon in the early 1990s, according to Barry Watts, who was an analyst at Northrop at the time.
The second factor was the US Navy. Although they pulled out of the ATF program, they still had their say in choosing the design, and they preferred the YF-22 naval version to YF-23’s one. The proposed Raptor/Tomcat hybrid looked very promising, and it was a sure pick to win Navy’s NATF (Navy Advanced Tactical Fighter) contract before the whole thing was canceled in 1992.
The final nail in YF-23’s coffin was Northrop’s strict adherence to the contract requirements. Lockheed, on the other hand, decided to have a chat with Tactical Air Command (and its successor Air Combat Command (ACC)) and discovered that people there didn’t really believe in stealth. So, they did the smart thing and put the emphasis on maneuverability. They marketed YF-22 as the “super f-15,” which was exactly what ACC wanted, instead of some newly fangled stealth which may or may not work.
The rest is history. YF-22 went to become F-22 Raptor, the best air superiority fighter in existence (and will remain for some time). Still, many air enthusiasts and experts alike still wonder how awesome operational YF-23 would be.