Lockheed-Martin’s Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35 “Lightning II,” has been the subject of much controversy and ire: fiscal hawks, foreign affairs analysts, national policymakers, and the press have derided the next-gen warplane as a costly and unnecessary expense.
On the other hand, these arguments were also once said a half-century ago regarding the JSF’s predecessor, an overlooked and unloved warplane nicknamed Aardvark.
The Aardvark’s formal designation was F-111, the product of the Tactical Fighter eXperimental (TFX) program, a project meant to create one model of fighter plane for multiple branches of the US armed forces.
The concept’s appeal was obvious: a single vehicle would streamline the logistics of parts, maintenance and training. In addition, the speed of operations and repairs would theoretically shorten, while the long-term expense for production, supplies and repairs would slide.
The problem then, as now, was that different branches of the armed forces had unique needs for their aircraft. Combat aviation became specialized to certain roles, be it targeting ground units or high-altitude reconnaissance. Purpose-built design and engineering resulted from those divergent needs, maximizing a craft’s effectiveness to a specific role.
Design didn’t impress Robert McNamara, US defense secretary in the 1960s. Efficiency was top priority. His aim was to maximize the amount of shared components in the aircraft, regardless of its overall effectiveness. He exercised this authority when he forced the US Air Force and Navy brass to accept the General Dynamics F-111 despite the superior performance of a Boeing concept.
GD’s location in Texas, home state of Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, was not lost on news reporters and legislators. McNamara’s selection of an inferior GD prototype ignited the suspicion of the US Congress, leading to a long (and ultimately fruitless) inquiry.
Adding to the Pentagon’s woes was the F-111’s long and messy development due to conflicting design elements by the USAF and USN.
The USAF desired a long-range fighter-bomber that could carry a tremendous arsenal while maintaining supersonic speed at low altitude.
The US Navy, however, wanted a defensive aircraft and set priority on high-altitude speed and specialization in a select number of weapons.
In spite of McNamara’s emphasis on structural efficiency, the Aardvark’s cost tripled and its service entry didn’t happen until after he resigned in 1967. By then, the US Senate was deep into an investigation of McNamara’s handling of the project.
Mechanical problems plagued the Aardvark in its testing stage. The craft’s maiden flight in 1964 ended abruptly after its engines stalled, requiring a long and costly design mod. More mishaps, including one in which a wing snapped off mid-flight, claimed the lives of several test pilots. More problems led to more tweaks, which then led to more weight and more complication. The Aardvark ballooned to an empty weight of 23.5 tons–60% heavier than an F-16.
This troubled development produced three long-term consequences: First, the Pentagon slashed its order from 3,000 units to less than 600. Second, the US Navy cancelled its variant once McNamara left office. Third, foreign customers disappeared. Australia eventually ordered a fleet of F-111s, but only after McNamara begged their government to keep the order and provided a huge discount.
Nevertheless, the Aardvark carried several novel features that included variable-geometry wings (“swing wings) that swept back for maximum speed and forward for handling, an escape module and terrain-following radar. The plane’s specs didn’t hurt either: top speed of 1,600+ MPH, est. ceiling of 65,000 ft., and a 10-ton payload.
The F-111 never became the primary fighter that the TFX project envisioned, but it did enjoy a renaissance as the EF-111. The new variant, nicknamed Raven, featured signal-jamming hardware that blinded enemy radar. The Raven took part in two notable operations: El Dorado Canyon against Libya in 1988 and Desert Storm against Iraq in 1991.
The US Defense Dept retired the F-111 in 1996. The epitaph for the Aardvark, as well as McNamara’s vision was commonality, was not a kind one. The F-111 never accomplished the vision laid out for it; the aircraft that succeeded the TFX project were far more specialized than anything before. Those included the McDonnell-Douglas F-15 Eagle in the USAF and the Grumman F-14 Tomcat in the US Navy.
Ah, the wonders of government.