RogerBW's Blog

McDonnell Douglas A-12 Avenger II 31 March 2014

Not the ancestor of what would become the SR-71, this A-12 was to be the US Navy's very own stealth bomber.

The justification for it was a replacement for the ageing A-6 Intruder. But one suspects that the real desire was rooted in inter-service envy: the US Air Force had the F-117 and was going to get the B-2, and the Navy and Marines wanted to have a stealth plane too.

Northrop/Grumman/Vought expressed an early interest, but failed to submit a final bid, so the team of McDonnell Douglas and General Dynamics got the development contract, expecting to reach first flight in just two years.

At first it was to be a pure ground-attack aircraft, but the spec crept upwards: it wouldn't just carry standard air-to-ground ordnance in its internal bay, it would load anti-radiation missiles as well. And nuclear bombs. And AMRAAMs, presumably in case the pilot felt like driving a fighter that day instead of a bomber. It would do everything! (Tip for young players: when the manufacturers start claiming the platform will do everything, ask them "how well will it do each thing?".) It was even named after a famous WWII carrier aircraft, to appeal to ageing politicians and admirals.

Many aircraft have started their lives as sketches on a napkin. The A-12 was the whole napkin: half a square, cut diagonally, with the cockpit at the blunter point, much like a simpler version of the B-2. It would have been roughly the size of an F-14.

Two years later, the projected date of first flight had slipped by two years. Problems with the complex composite materials had let the aircraft's projected weight build up to 30% over design specification, not ideal for a carrier aircraft that already operates up to the limits of its landing gear, and troubles with the radar (yes, this stealthy aircraft would also have an active radar) had vastly increased the cost. Work hadn't even started on the prototype; all that McDonnell Douglas had to show for two years of funding was a mockup. Late in 1990, Dick Cheney (then Secretary of Defense) required the Navy to justify the programme; he wasn't convinced, and cancelled it early in 1991.

Various lawsuits ensued, since the cancellation was technically for breach of contract. Cheney claimed that nobody could give him a plausible estimate of a completion date or total cost, but plenty of other government projects have been in similarly parlous states during development. Nobody comes out of this looking good; McDonnell Douglas let development slip and costs increase even more than is usual for government contracts, and the Navy asked for a plane that could do everything better than all its other planes put together.

In the end, the Intruder was replaced briefly by an upgraded F-14, then by the Super Hornet.

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