What if the A-12 had avoided Dick Cheney's axe?


During the George H. W. Bush Administration, the Navy and Marine Corps were pursuing two revolutionary aircraft. One was the V-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor intended to replace the CH-46 Sea Knight. The other was the A-12 Avenger, the planned replacement for the A-6 Intruder, the classic attack airplane made famous in the book and movie Flight of the Intruder.

Early on in the first Bush Administration, the Berlin Wall fell, thanks in no small part due to the Reagan defense build-up and more covert efforts (Peter Schweizer’s Victory tells that tale). For the world, the collapse of communism was a good thing. But for the V-22 and A-12, things started to get rough, as a “peace dividend” was eyed by politicians inside the Beltway. Then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney soon put both aircraft projects on the chopping block — the V-22 because of developmental test failures that resulted in several high-profile mishaps, and the A-12 for massive cost overruns well before a single airframe was ready to launch.

a5c17be1-a0a1-43bb-a11f-80303ab16b4bCongress acted to save the V-22 (over Cheney’s objections). The Marines then stuck with the plane during a lengthy R&D effort. What the Marines got as a result of that decision was a game-changer, particularly when compared to the CH-46 Sea Knight, as the included graphic from the Government Accountability Office shows. The V-22 can carry half of a Marine infantry platoon almost 400 miles from its base at speeds of up to 275 knots. Compare that to the CH-46E’s 184-mile combat radius, and top speed of 166 miles per hour, and the fact it could carry only a third of a Marine infantry platoon.

Marines found the V-22 to be effective in Iraq and Afghanistan, while Air Force Special Operations Command proved their version’s mettle in a raid against ISIS in Syria. To put it bluntly, the V-22 proved Cheney wrong, while the Marines and AFSOC were rewarded for their perseverance and faith in the new technology. In fact, the V-22 could even add a new mission not planned for in the initial specs: Aerial refueling.

As we know from history, the A-12 Avenger was not so lucky. Trying to make a point with his budgeteers about fiscal responsibility, Cheney made that cut stick.

So what did the Navy lose out on? For starters, let’s look at the plane the A-12 was supposed to replace.

The A-6 Intruder was an all-weather attack plane that was designed to carry a large bomb load (up to 18,000 pounds). At the time it was designed, stealth technology and smart bombs weren’t in the picture. But the plane gave valuable service, both during the Vietnam War and Desert Storm, as well as also seeing action in smaller conflicts like the 1986 clashes with Libya and Operation Preying Mantis in 1988.

While the Avenger’s actual performance will not be known, some estimates are available, including a range of just over 900 miles, a top speed of 578 knots, and a bomb load of 5,000 pounds. Notable in this is that the plane was also slated to carry two AIM-120 AMRAAMs and two AGM-88 HARMs for self-protection in addition to its bombload.

But the real game-changer was its stealth technology. The A-12, like the F-117, B-2, and F-22, would be able to evade detection by most radars, and deliver precision-guided weapons on to targets. Would it, like the V-22, have been able to do more? Again, we will never know.

These days, developing a new combat aircraft takes longer than it used to, as the F-35, V-22, and F-22 have proven. Part of it is because that to survive in a modern environment, the aircraft is, in one sense, a flying computer, running as much on software as it does jet fuel. There is a major implication to this. When your laptop has a software hiccup, it’s an inconvenience. When a software hiccup happens on a modern combat plane, it means the loss of an airframe, and possibly the pilot as well. So, the required level of reliability gets higher, and reaching that level of reliability will take longer and cost more money.

In an age where both Russia and China have become more hostile to the United States, and their militaries are bringing new weapons systems on line, one has to wonder if the presence of the A-12 would have helped.