The A-7 Corsair II, known also as the SLUF, as in "Short Little Ugly Fucker," was a conservative balance of economy, persistence, payload, and technology, and its final design evolution, the A-7F, could have been the right fighter for the wars to come in the new millennium.
The A-7 was designed in the early 1960s as an attack-focused offshoot of the Navy's legendary F-8 Crusader. One could easily venture to say that America could learn something from the meager SLUF, and especially its proposed last iteration, some two decades after it's retirement from US inventories. The original A-7 was a purpose-built bomb truck, which leveraged a large fuel load, highly efficient turbofan engine, simple airframe design and affordability across the board.
All this came at the expense of Mach-one-plus fighter jet speeds and extreme maneuverability, yet this sacrifice was offset by the most cutting edge installed avionics suite of its day.
The Corsair II was the first aircraft to truly make cockpit functionality and pilot interface a hallmark design objective. For instance, the SLUF was the first production aircraft to feature a true Heads Up Display (HUD) as we understand it today. The jet also utilized a state-of-the-art radar set, inertial navigation system, centralized mission computer, and a moving map display for incredibly accurate bombing and autopilot navigation, even in horrid weather conditions.
By the late 1970s, upgraded models of the Corsair II utilized a forward-looking infra-red (FLIR) navigational pod which could project its image directly onto the pilot's HUD for night and adverse weather operations. It was the first line inventory aircraft that would boast such an around-the-clock attack capability, such as the more complex A-6 Intruder of the Navy, or the USAF's F-111 Aardvark, had to rely on radar-centric automatic terrain following and bombing modes alone.
By the mid 1980s the A-10 Thunderbolt II program was in full swing, and the USAF was not very happy with its purchase. Sure, the A-10 was the ultimate daytime close air support (CAS) machine even designed, but its supposed inability to fly at high speed, deep into enemy territory on interdiction missions, while also defending itself against roaming enemy fighters, is something that the USAF has had an issue with to this very day.
By the early 1980s, the USAF wanted to explore an alternative to the deep battlefield interdiction and strike mission. In 1986, the USAF put out a request for information regarding a requirement for an all-weather and night-attack capable Close Air Support & Battlefield Area Interdiction (CAS/BAI) aircraft. Ling Temco Vought (LTV) replied back to the USAF's set of mission requirements with the A-7F "Strikefighter."
The A-7F concept would take the well-known A-7 Corsair II platform and bring its design almost full circle by lengthening the standard A-7 fuselage by four feet, in order to accommodate the powerful Pratt & Whitney F100-220 turbofan – the same engine in the F-15 – in the place of the A-7's older TF-41 turbofan. This would bring the A-7′s thrust up from 14,500lbs to 26,000lbs and would feature an afterburner, a component missing on the A-7′s family tree since the F-8 Crusader.
This new arrangement would allow the A-7F to reach speeds well above Mach one, and would effectively turn America's no-nonsense bomb-truck into an affordable high-speed deep striker. Along with these developments, the SLUF would probably lose its humble and disparaging nickname, as the A-7F was anything but slow.
And surprisingly, it wasn't that "fucking ugly" either.
Along with the A-7F's new powerplant, the jet would also get a strengthened wing and a more aggressive set of control surfaces, including a larger vertical tail, maneuvering flaps and wing root extensions. Additionally, the A-7F was packed with a cutting edge avionics suite that was optimized for the low-level deep strike environment and could operate in almost any atmospheric conditions. Virtually every relevant system would be updated, including the HUD, navigation suite, radar, FLIR, oxygen system, radios, and radar warning receiver, among many other items.
The idea behind the A-7F concept was to carry a LOT of bombs at high speed, in any conditions, over large distances, all at a reasonable price. Massive bomb loads approaching 18,000lbs could be carried in operational configurations by the A-7F, while retaining tactically relevant speed and maneuverability margins.
The aircraft was able to accelerate with heavy loads quickly, and could approach Mach 1.6 for prolonged dashes, with some sources saying Mach 1.8 was its true top speed. By 1989 the first YA-7F prototype, directly adapted from an existing A-7D, was in flight testing with the USAF.
Two prototypes were built in totalm and in many ways the A-7F was the "Super Corsair II" of its lineage.
The aircraft performed in fantastic fashion during testing at Edwards Air Force Base. If modified from existing USAF stocks the cost of each aircraft, fully outfitted, would have been well under $10M, and that made it seem like the jet could fill a great space within America's "high-low" tactical aircraft mix.
Furthermore, it could now fly over the speed of sound.
Sadly, the A-7F's timing was not advantageous to its survival. With the weakening and eventual crumbling of the Soviet Union and with looming defense cuts on the horizon, the trend toward buying much more expensive "multi-role" tactical jet platforms that were designed to fly both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions from birth was in high popularity within the Pentagon's walls.
Just as well, the competition provided by the F-16C Block 40, with its ongoing integration of the LANTIRN navigational and targeting pod system, created an inhospitable procurement environment for the A-7F concept.
Despite an intense marketing blitz by LTV, the program was shuttered in favor of procuring the already in-production, pointy-nosed "fighter first" F-16 Fighting Falcon, regardless of its much shorter range and lighter payload capabilities when compared to those of the A-7F.
The A-7F's story is an interesting one as it fits into the chaotic mosaic of the often conflicting procurement requirements and test projects of the 1980s. The standard A-7 was never an All-Star within the USAF, and the National Guard had already absorbed many of the aircraft fairly early on in its Air Force career.
Yet still, in the mind of the USAF the A-7F, although not a fighter, was better than the slow and historically maligned A-10A Warthog. Oddly enough, the fact of the matter is that the A-10 had been tested as a similar deep battlefield, night and all-weather interdiction concept in the early 1980s.
That aircraft was known as the A-10B N/AW, and gave the Warthog the brains and vision it always needed to make the most out of the platform's potential.
The A-10's night- and precision- attack exploratory program was cancelled after about 50 successful test flights, for various disjointed and superficial reasons. In reality, it was most likely cancelled because the jet was still seen as a slow slap in the face to an increasingly fast-jet dominated Air Force, regardless of the program's vast improvements in mission effectiveness gained by its new avionics suite and second crewman.
Another key point to highlight regarding the A-7F story is that by fall of the Soviet Union, and just like today, specialized tactical airframes were seen as unaffordable to procure no matter how affordable they truly were, even though in reality the A-7F was hardly specialized. In the case of the A-7F, the aircraft was ridiculously cheap to procure and operate, considering the capability it provided.
Furthermore, there is simply no comparison between the A-7F and the F-16 when it comes to range and payload. The A-7 Corsair II could already ferry itself, with no tanker support, across the Atlantic. When loaded with weapons it could stay airborne for hours without the need for incredibly expensive and logistically challenging aerial refueling.
When it came to payload the A-7F had the same "paper" payload as an F-16, around 17,000lbs, but in reality it could actually carry close to that number and remain a viable combatant in terms of range, speed and agility, the F-16 could not. This is where the A-7F's bomb-truck roots trounce that of the F-16's, it being an aircraft that was built more as a daytime light-fighter than a deep striker.
And even though the F-16 was faster on paper, it could only sustain that speed without heavy stores and for a very short period of time. The A-7F could hit Mach 1.6 and stay there much longer due to its much larger fuel-fraction. Finally, the cost to operate the well-known A-7 platform was downright economical when compared to the F-16 series of fighters.
It's doubtful if any of these clear realities were factored heavily into the USAF's decision not to purchase the dirt-cheap A-7F, opting for the light-fighter-turned-deep-strike-aircraft, the F-16C Block 40, now referred to as the F-16CG, instead.
Fast forward to 2001, and all of the sudden America is occupying foreign lands where all aerial threats have been removed during initial hostilities. Over a decade of constant operations utilizing F-16s and other costly and fuel thirsty "F series" platforms and heavy bombers have taken a massive bite out of America's air combat force's longevity, not to mention adding greatly to the national debt.
Imagine if the cheap and robust A-7F was procured in the 1990s, as in almost every way it would have been the perfect aircraft for the job in Afghanistan and Iraq, providing quick transit times, heavy munitions load, and accurate and persistent air support with much less dependency on costly aerial refueling (F-16s have to hit the tanker as frequently as every 45 minutes when on station in a combat zone). Gas passed by a tanker ends up costing $25-35 per gallon, depending on what tanker is pumping the gas, KC-135 or KC-10. Also, the A-7F would have been able to do what the A-10, or the previous A-7 models could not – dash at supersonic speed towards its target area and put up a respectable self-defense capability.
The A-7F resembled its grandfather, the F-8 Crusader, in remarkable fashion, and in many ways the 1950s vintage F-8 derived design had come full circle in terms of agility and high-speed performance to reach its maximum potential some 30 years after the F-8 was originally introduced into service.
Yet once again the USAF traded a pointy nosed, sexy, and fuel thirsty design that was good at everything but great at nothing, over a more affordable and effective more "specialized" option. One that in retrospect would have been the perfect mix of speed, economy, persistence and punch for the wars to come in the then oncoming new millennium.
Today we face an even more acute form of this one-size-fits-all, do-everything-at-all-costs approach to tactical aircraft design. Top of the line "Gucci" systems, which feature huge design trade-offs in order to do perform every mission, have created an odd paradox where they themselves turn into a costly "niche" capability (see the F-35B).
In many ways America's fighter stable is becoming an unaffordable all "niche" capability, with our near-blind and budget-crushing rush towards an almost all low-observable tactical fighter inventory. We must remember that even during the Reagan Administration, at the height of the cold war, only about 60 F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighters were procured, as its ability to evade radar was seen as a highly expensive "niche" capability.
Aircraft like the F/A-18 Super Hornet Advanced and the F-15 Silent Eagle are the more capable A-7Fs of today, both jets being derived from weapon system families that have been molded and honed over decades of operational service, with their learning curves already hard-fought and costly mistakes relative to their designs already have been corrected, and many believe they deserve a rightful place in the America's tactical fighter aircraft inventory of the future.
A true high-low capability mix is a winning strategy for America's tactical fighter aircraft needs for good reason. It allows our air forces to purchase inexpensive and proven airframes in large quantities to do 80% of the missions that we may be faced with, while at the same time they can afford to procure a smaller amount of super high-end, high-risk, exotic and expensive technologies to accomplish the remaining 20% of missions that could not be accomplished by the lower-end majority of airframes in inventory.
This high-low capability mix procurement strategy allows for a force to innovate wildly in the lower density, high-end side of the inventory equation while relying on a stable, low-risk foundation of lower-tech and affordable platforms to fill out the rest of the inventory in an efficient manner.
By having a one size fits all strategy you get a grossly expensive "overkill" force for 80% of the missions we will face, and an inadequate and design-compromised force for the extremely high-risk 20% of missions that are crucial to our nation's ability to kick down the enemy's door and quickly gain air supremacy.
In other words, we give up a lot of opportunity cost, not just money, in buying a one-size-fits all high-end fighter force.
Maybe it's time for the USAF to really evaluate its procurement decision track record, and to deeply reflect on its airframe choices over the past few decades in relation to the realities of the wars that they have actually had to fight over that same period.
There are some very important and expensive lessons to be learned by simply asking "what could have been," as is the case of the humble A-7F Strikefighter.
Pictures via USAF, Navy, LTV, public Domain, LANTIRN drawing Martin Marietta Crop/LM
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer that maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com