Check out this awesome image of the McDonnel Douglas/General Dynamics A-12 Avenger II’s cockpit concept circa the late 1980′s. The A-12, dubbed the ”flying Dorito” by detractors, was most likely developed from the “Sneaky Pete” stealth flying wing penetrator concept of the early 1980′s. It is not clear if a classified Sneaky Pete actually flew as a technology demonstrator during the 1980′s but many believe that it did. The A-12 program, also known as the Advanced Tactical Aircraft (ATA) initiative, was intended to replace the ageing A-6 Intruder as the Navy’s attack aircraft. The flying wing design allowed for a much lower radar and infra-red signature than a traditional airframe. In the end the A-12 design was struggling to reach its performance goals. The composite win and its cost was escalating rapidly. With this in mind, paired with the end of the Cold War and shrinking defense budgets, then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney cancelled the A-12 outright, and the Navy’s gaze turned away from a purpose built, stealth technology-centric precision attack platform, over to evolving potential multi-role platforms already in service. The Super Hornet and a few very promising derivatives of the F-14 were proposed to fill the sudden gap left by the A-12′s cancellation. In the end the Super Hornet was chosen and the rest is history. None-the-less, a good portion of the concept for the A-12′s cockpit, an outgrowth of the F-15E and the “legacy Hornet’s” cockpit design, looks like it made its way to the F/A-18F Super Hornet a decade after the Avenger’s cancellation. Of particular note is the large “situational display” screen in the center of the rear and front cockpit pedestals as well as the touch screen up front controls.
Fast forward over 20 years after the Avenger II’s cancellation, and only in the latter half of this decade might the Navy actually fulfill the low-observable attack capability in the form of the F-35C. Still, the F-35 is quite conceptually inferior to the A-12 when it comes to deep strike alone. The A-12 was to have close to double the range of the F-35C and far greater payload potential (figures found on the net regarding both these design parameters are misleading). Apparently, the composite wing spar structures were a major issue during the prototyping phase for the A-12, the technology simply was not there to make these structures reliably strong and light enough to meet the design’s goals. The Avenger also had composite skin durability issues, center of gravity problems, and an elaborate wing folding mechanism that was taking a lot of time and money to make work. Additionally, the jet lacked thrust in a big way. Fully loaded it was said that only 16 runways in the world could accommodate the A-12′s long takeoff roll. Whether this statement is actually true is really beside the point, the A-12 needed more powerful motors.
Like so many other past combat aircraft designs, one has to wonder what the platform could accomplish using today’s material science, avionics, and powerplants. I have a feeling that if the A-12 were designed today, with its ample fuel supply, large radar apertures, low observable potential and sizable payload, it would be a fantastic aircraft for the current operational realities of the Pacific. Also, the original A-12 concept saw the aircraft as being multi-role, with air to air, electronic attack and reconnaissance capability being strong, but periphery elements of the aircraft’s menu of capabilities.. Additionally, I would argue that with emerging Distributed Aperture Technology and lock on after lock short range missiles, you do not even need a maneuverable fighter at all to dominate the skies. Less dependence on very non-stealthy tankers, longer on-station times, and a larger payload of air to air missiles would arguably offer a better air superiority capability than a short legged, 9g capable superfighter.
Then again, in some ways, a marginally downsized and highly modernized version of the A-12 is being tested on carriers today, in the form of the unmanned X-47B. Eventually its production successor, the UCLASS, will fill the role that the A-12 aspired to fill decades ago, although without a human being on-board….