Key point: Had Northrop won the competition, the F-23 might have been a better overall performer, but it would have likely been more expensive.
In 1991, Lockheed won the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) competition and went on to develop the stealthy world beating F-22 Raptor air superiority fighter.
While in many ways, Northrop’s losing YF-23 was a much better design, but the U.S. Air Force chose the Lockheed aircraft because it believed that company would better manage the development program—and because the service thought the Raptor would cost less.
At the time, Northrop was in the doghouse with the Pentagon and the U.S. Congress because of massive cost overruns on the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber and several other projects. Meanwhile, partner McDonnell Douglas wasn’t faring much better. “I don't know how the Air Force decided which contractors would build the ATF, but I can only assume that there was some long-overdue consideration of Northrop's dismal track record of test fraud, contract suspension and fines,” Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) told the LA Times years ago.
But what would an operational F-23 have looked like? And what if General Electric’s revolutionary variable-cycle YF120 had carried the day?