Northrop YF-23: Why the US Air Force Rejected This Space-Age Stealth Fighter

The Northrop YF-23 could have been an unmatched aircraft due to its impressive capabilities... But, the USAF rejected the project to embrace the iconic F-22 Raptor!
northrop yf-23

Although the US Air Force’s Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) competition was settled nearly thirty years ago with the Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor emerging as the winner, the battle between the YF-22 (which would become the F-22) and the Northrop YF-23 still continues to fascinate countless people.

Even if the USAF opted for the F-22, its advantages weren’t overwhelming – and the YF-23 also had tremendous capabilities and could have been a respectable US benchmark in the air.

What was the issue with the YF-23? Why did the USAF prefer the F-22?

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The stunning Northrop YF-23

McDonnell Douglas YF-23
McDonnell Douglas Northrop YF-23 by Valder137. Licensed under CC by 2.0

The Northrop YF-23 was created by Northrop Grumman and McDonnell Douglas to replace the F-15 as the top American fighter jet and entered into open competition in 1986 to become the flagship project of the USAF.

It was initially developed in the 70s to counter the emerging Soviet aircraft and outperform them with top-notch technology.

Consequently, it was able to compete with all major U.S. fighter jet manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, and Boeing.

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Its impressive prototype was considered as good as the YF-22. So, only two models got to the final round of the ATF: the Lockheed Martin YF-22 and Northrop Grumman/McDonnell Douglas YF-23.

The Northrop YF-23 had two prototypes: the Black Widow II and the Grey Ghost. Both could reach a speed of Mach 2 and look like mighty aircraft that could have been part of the USAF… But, they still needed to compete with the F-22 (YF-22 while in the experimental stage).

Northrop YF-23 vs Lockheed Martin F-22

YF-23 Black Widow II
Northrop YF-23 Black Widow II by Clemens Vasters. Licensed under CC by 2.0

The YF-22 and YF-23 had great features, and both could have easily prevailed in the final assessment of the ATF. The YF-23 was a larger but lighter aircraft than the YF-22 and with somewhat similar speeds. But the FY-22 was considered more cost-effective for the USAF’s experts.

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YF-23

  • Manufacturer: Northrop/McDonnell Douglas
  • Status: Canceled
  • Produced: 1989–1990
  • Number built: 2
  • Crew: 1
  • Length: 67 feet 5 inches (20.55 meters)
  • Wingspan: 43 feet 7 inches (13.28 meters)
  • Height: 13 feet 11 inches (4.24 meters)
  • Empty weight: 29,000 pounds (13,154 kilograms)
  • Maximum takeoff weight: 62,000 pounds (28,123 kilograms)
  • Maximum speed:1,450 mph, 2,335 km/h
  • Range: 2,789 miles / 4,489 kilometers
  • Combat range: 800 miles / 1,287 kilometers
  • Service ceiling: 65,000 feet (20,000 meters)

F-22 Raptor

F 22
Photo by Staff Sgt. Alex Echols 48th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

  • Manufacturer: Lockheed Martin Aeronautics
  • Status: In service
  • Produced: 1996–2011
  • Number built: 195 
  • Developed from: Lockheed YF-22
  • Crew: 1
  • Length: 62 feet 1 inch (18.92 meters)
  • Wingspan: 44 feet 6 inches (13.56 meters)
  • Height: 16 feet 8 inches (5.08 meters)
  • Empty weight: 43,340 pounds (19,700 kg)
  • Maximum takeoff weight: 83,500 pounds (38,000 kilograms)
  • Maximum speed:1,500 mph, 2,414 km/h 
  • Range: 1,800 miles / 3,000 kilometers
  • Combat range: 530 miles / 850 kilometers
  • Service ceiling: 65,000 feet (20,000 meters)

According to experts, the YF-23 had diamond-shaped wings that were poorly suited for supersonic flight, and they decreased maneuverability.

Also, the YF-23 frontal area was larger than the YF-22, so it was more visible in close air combat and more vulnerable to detection by enemy radar. Moreover, the YF-23 was more expensive.

That’s why the USAF chose the F-22 as their preferred fighter jet and canceled the YF-23 project even if it was still an aircraft with a lot of potential.

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The F-22 Raptor and the YF-23 were both strong performers… but the F-22 triumphed

The YF-22 would eventually become today’s F-22 Raptor, and entered service in late 2005… and remains one of the best air superiority fighter ever built in the US.

However, in many ways, the YF-23 was a premium and superior design that was far ahead of its time. Although it wasn’t the only factor at play, the Air Force simply had more faith in Lockheed’s team to manage what became the Raptor program.


Featured image credit: Two YF-23 in formation by USAF

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