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The War Nerd February 21, 2008
Hardware For Dummies: The Osprey Vs. The Hornet
By Gary Brecher Browse author Email
Page 3 of 4

But don’t expect Cheney or any of his pals to say so. The only weapons systems they hate are the ones like the Osprey, hardware that actually might help us fight and win irregular wars.

In case this sounds harsh, let’s talk about another weapons system, one that Tom Clancy just loves, the fucking moron: the F/A-18 Hornet. I happen to know everything there is to know about how this clunker came into service, because my baptism of fire as a hardware war nerd was the Lightweight Fighter Program, the big showdown between two contenders for a smaller, cheaper fighter to complement the F-15. I was still in grade school, and a lot of the technical stuff was over my head, but by reading everything the library had, every issue of Armed Forces Journal and Aviation Week, I got the main line of the story.

The idea behind the Lightweight Fighter was that, in an all-out air war against the Warsaw Pact, we’d lose a lot of planes, so we needed a HiLo mix of expensive high-altitude air-superiority fighters like the F-15 and F-14 and cheaper, lighter planes that could match the dogfighting agility of the MiG-21. We were overrating the MiG-21, as it turned out, but at the time everybody took it real seriously. Why not? There was no money in admitting the MiG-21 was a flying Yugo. Totally inferior to the earlier MiG designs. It was supposed to be a lean, mean killer and we needed something to match.

Of course the F-4 Phantom was part of the problem. It was lousy in dogfights over North Vietnam, because it handled like a SCUD, an interceptor pushed into duty as a dogfighter. The USAF had been pushed into accepting the F-4, a Navy carrier-based design, and hated it. One outcome was the Top Gun schools to re-train pilots to stick and move; the other was the Lightweight Fighter Program, which was supposed to give them a fighter that could play bumper-cars instead of just drag racing.

There were five entries, but it soon came down to two contenders: the General Dynamics YF-16 and the Northrop YF-17. Both services, the USAF and the Navy, had agreed to buy the winning design. And it was pretty clear, even to a naive kid like me, that General Dynamics was the winning team this time. I knew how to read between the lines from being a big Oakland Raiders fan: I knew what the writers were saying in that careful language they used. And they were saying Northrop’s design was a dog, but GD’s was amazing.

Nobody much liked GD back then, because the F-111 fighter-bomber had a bad rep, but their F-16 prototype outflew the Northrop contender every time. It was more mobile at high speed, and it even cost less: $4.6 million per copy, vs. $5 million for the Northrop. In 1975 it was officially announced as the winner. And that’s when things got weird. At the time I just didn’t understand what happened. Too young and dumb, too trusting--like most war nerds are even today.

First big shock was that the Navy went back on the deal, announced it wouldn’t buy the F-16 and was going to adopt a modified version of the F-17. The official reason was that the F-16 had only one engine, and the Navy had always had double-engine fighters. The Northrop design, the YF-17, was a twin-engine.

But that two-engine story was actually a lie that the Navy figured was simple enough for Congress to understand. I remember hearing the same story from my uncle, who dived for abalone on weekends in this crappy old boat with double inboards. My dad would just nod while my uncle went on about how you had to have two engines, one just wasn’t safe…and then when we were back in the car heading home, my dad would

explain that was a lot of nonsense that dated from the days when marine engines were so hopeless you had to have a spare if you wanted to stay off the rocks. Any decent modern diesel would do you fine.

And when you consider that the F-16’s engine was none other than the Pratt & Whitney F-100, the same beautiful machine that powered the F-15, the double-engine story sounds pretty feeble. The F/A-18’s GE F-404 never had, and never will have, the same legendary rep as the P&W F-100. In fact, they had to do endless modifications just to get the thing to work.

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Gary Brecher
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