The real reason the Navy didnít want the F-16 was that the USAF was going to be using it. Even though theyíd stuck the USAF with the F-4, they werenít going to take their promised turn making the big adjustment. The Navy didnít really think much of the Northrop YF-17, but they liked the fact that it would be all theirs.
And to show that they were calling the shots, the Navy went and did the ultimate betrayal: they bought the Northrop design, and then froze Northrop itself out of the development process, the whole long, profitable business of converting the YF-17 into a carrier-based airplane that eventually became the F/A-18. They handed over the whole program to a contractor they liked better, McDonnell Douglas.
The reason the Navy wouldnít let Northrop handle the program goes all the way back to the 1940s, when these companies were still run by the guys theyíre named after. Northrop was the property of John Knudsen Northrop, who had earned the total, eternal hate of the Navy by daring to tell Congress that we didnít need aircraft carriers any more. Thatís the one thing you donít ever tell the Navy, even though everybody knows itís true. Northrop was just trying to sell his weird "flying wing" designs when he made that crack
about the carriers, but the damage was done. Thirty years later, the Navy brass got its revenge by taking Northropís F-17 away and making it the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18.
It wasnít a very good design then, and it isnít now. The F-16 has had a totally brilliant career, proved itself in air superiority and ground attack versions. The F/A-18 clunks along thanks to great pilots and a lot of cash, but itís just not that great an airframe.
The only reason the F/A-18 exists is to be put on aircraft carriers. Which brings us back to what Jack Northrop said more than fifty years ago: why do we need aircraft carriers?
If you look hard at the Navyís weird little dance after the Lightweight Fighter Program, what you see is a mediocre plane that never should have been funded, sitting on the decks of the most expensive, useless and vulnerable warships ever built.
When we scrambled F/A-18s to intercept old Soviet Tu-95s that were photographing the USS Nimitz in the Pacific last week (Feb. 11), the whole farce got me down. Hereís a couple of rusty, slow, hopelessly obsolete 55-year-old Soviet bombers pretending to threaten a US aircraft carrier thatís just as obsolete as they are. Every ham actor in that little drama should have retired long ago; it was like watching a fight between a couple of old heavyweights who should be enjoying their golden years in a wheelchair but keep getting trotted out because Don King knows how gullible we all are.
The Russians can get better pictures from their satellites than the poor old Tu-95s got; the Nimitz is a worthless target anyway, designed to fight WW II; and the F-18 that intercepted it only exists because the Navy turned down a superior plane, the F-16, for reasons that would have embarrassed a fourth grader.
And yet itís the V-22 Osprey that gets all the bad press. Jeez. Itís not the hardware I mind, itís the rusty Cold War software in the heads of the guys who like to talk about it.