As the A-12 was being developed by the now notorious Lockheed Skunkworks, under legendary aircraft designer Kelly Johnson, as project “Oxcart,” those in the know were looking at other ways the new mach 3+ technology could be exploited beyond its genesis role as a super fast, and thus survivable, reconnaissance aircraft. This was during the time period when the singularly focused point defense interceptor was the key to repelling hoards of marauding Soviet long-range bombers from reaching their western targets in the US and abroad. It was all about early detection, fast reaction, and a quick weapons release. The sooner the USAF’s aircraft could get to the bombers the less chance they had at unleashing their deadly payloads. With all this in mind an unprecedentedly fast interceptor was an attractive capability to the USAF and so the YF-12 was born. The YF-12 was basically a modified A-12 (a CIA supported single seat predecessor to the infamous SR-71 Blackbird spy plane) with an enlarged canopy, a massive radome to house the cutting edge (at the time) AN/ASG-18 Radar, the addition of an integrated Infra Red Search & Track system, large ventral fins for increased stability, the addition of a second crew member to man the complex radar system and finally launch bays to house 4 AIM-47 Falcon air-to-air or AGM-76 nuclear tipped air to surface missiles. In the proposed production design, known as the F-12B, a gun with 1000 rounds was even going to be offered.
The YF-12 was no slouch, in fact it was one hell of a machine. It could fly at 80,000ft and 2,000+ MPH over substantial distances. This was a fantastic set of metrics that were highly relevant for its intended use. It could climb ridiculously high, get on station fast and had the room for a massive radar to detect and kill the enemy at long distances. Its downfall was its intense complexity and high procurement and operating costs. Even with these issues the USAF ordered 93 of these marvelous machines. Sadly, by the time the order was penned (around 1965) the Vietnam War was heating up and Sec Def McNamara withheld the funding for the rebranded “F-12B” order, redirecting resources to the increasingly costly mission in SE Asia. By 1968 the USAF has begun to back off on its demands for homeland air defense interceptors as ICBMs were beginning to make them less relevant than ever before. In addition, since the F-12B never made it into the inventory as planned three years prior the program was cancelled.
Although the YF-12/F-12B is relegated to the history books as another “it could have been” aircraft it did help spawn the legendary SR-71 Blackbird, which shared its second crew member forward fuselage design, but we can learn so much more from this aircraft and it’s philosophy. Like so many designs of the period, the F-12B was simply to far ahead of its time for its own good. Its fire control and missile systems was still in their first generation, a time where radar guided missiles were seen as a nuclear delivery system, able to be launched into a large formation of bombers, detonating in mid-air with the resulting shockwave destroying the targeted formation. Although the AN/ASG-18 and AIM-47 combo saw the beginnings of a conventional approach to long-range air to air missiles, as the radar set could see small targets amongst ground clutter and the AIM-47 could be used conventionally to hit single targets at long distances, the systems were just not reliable enough at the time to wholly justify this conventionally armed approach. Fast forward the F-12B 10 years after its original proposed production year, from 1965 to 1975 and we get a clearer picture of what this machine could have been.
In many ways the AN/ASG-18 and AIM-47 combo were the predecessor of the hallmark AN/AWG-9 radar and AIM-54 “Phoenix” missile combo built into the F-14A Tomcat. The modern and super powerful AWG-9 pulse doppler radar could lob the new “Phoenix” missiles over a hundred miles at medium-sized radar targets. Keep in mind that the F-14 would fly between 25,000ft and 45,000ft operationally, and the Phoenix would have to climb to the F-12B’s cruising altitude of 80,000ft before coasting to their target from that point in the long-range launch flight profile. Stick that same radar and missile combo into the ample sized AF-12B and just IMAGINE the look down/shoot down capability and the ridiculous engagement ranges that would have been possible when detection and launch is made at mach 3 and 80,000ft!!!! I really have no numbers to give you to directly quantify the F-12B’s potential capability with the Tomcat’s weapon systems installed but I would guess it’s combination of hight altitude and blistering speed would have put the AIM-54s affective kill range beyond the targeting range of the AWG-9 radar even at the A-12Bs incredibly high operating altitude. Simply put, the AF-12B would have been the most deadly, survivable and capable airplane killer of all time.
Even today, in the world of super maneuverability, super cruise, AESA radars and stealth designs, the philosophy of the YF-12/F-12B may be more relevant now than ever. If a large stealth aircraft were designed to fly at mach 3 and 80,000ft today, with a massive AESA radar and a huge load of AIM-120s and/or ramjet powered long-range BVR missiles such as the MBDA Meteor, would this not be the ultimate anti-air and destruction of enemy air defenses weapon system? Invisible at 80,000 and flying at mach 3 who could combat this machine? Could not a modernized F-12 type design basically run parallel right down the front lines of an air battle, building a massive radar picture and lobbing BVR missiles at any hostile targets form hundreds upon hundreds of miles away? In many ways this comes back to my continued argument for a regional fighter-bomber, but the A-12’s high-speed, high altitude capability would be even better. Further, the aircraft would be able to toss JDAMs and SBDs at targets hundreds of miles from their launch point with absolute impunity. At Mach 3 who needs a high-speed anti radiation missile when a JDAM would be traveling thousands of miles an hour at launch!?!?
In the end the YF-12/F-12B was an aircraft so far ahead of its time that the very philosophy that would define its fantastic utility had not even been imagined yet. I can tell you one thing, if you put such and aircraft in the air today over the Nellis ranges, armed with the latest in data links, AESA radar and missile technology, it would give anything in the inventory a major run for its money.