A-12 Avenger: The Stealth Bomber on Aircraft Carriers
A-12 Avenger. Image credit: Creative Commons.
The A-12 Avenger faced insurmountable challenges. Initial predictions about its stealth coating turned out to be excessively optimistic, leading to modifications that increased its weight and, therefore, its development costs.

McDonnell Douglas proposed the A-12 Avenger, an innovative flying wing design reminiscent of the B-2 Spirit but on a smaller scale.

Introduction

Weapons perish for various reasons: bad timing, defense austerity, inadequate personnel, bureaucratic complexities or because it was initially a bad idea. However, some defense systems, despite poor management, manage to endure if they serve a specific niche effectively.

This analysis explores five defensive systems that, if they had endured, could have revolutionized key aspects of defense, impacting not only the military-industrial base but also war strategies and acquisition processes. It should be noted that not all cancellations are negative; some are made with just cause.

Impact of canceled projects on defense strategy

During the early 1960s, the US Army began to appreciate the potential of helicopter aviation, having employed them for reconnaissance and evacuation since the end of World War II and throughout the Korean conflict.

With technological advancement, the vision of developing helicopters capable of executing a broader range of missions emerged, with the AH-56 Cheyenne being the protagonist of this new approach.

This helicopter, promising for its high speed and attack capacity, was projected to escort transport missions or execute ground support operations autonomously, promising speeds of up to 275 miles per hour thanks to its advanced propulsion system.

However, the Cheyenne was besieged by his ambition. The fundamental technologies for its development were not yet perfected, leading to failures in the prototypes and fatal accidents.

The Air Force, fearful of losing close air support missions to the Army, showed strong opposition to the project, even proposing the development of a fixed-wing attack aircraft, which would later materialize in the A-10, to supplant the Cheyenne. Financing was also compromised by the Vietnam War, which restricted budgets and diverted resources.

The AH-56 Cheyenne never materialized, but its cancellation did not spell the end of the Army’s ambition for an advanced attack helicopter, later culminating in the adoption of the AH-64 Apache.

Although safer and more conventional than the Cheyenne, the choice of the Apache marked a limit on the potential innovation of Army military aviation, demonstrating how strategic decisions and technological and financial challenges can profoundly influence the development of military capabilities.

The B-70 Valkyrie: between legacy and legend in aviation

The XB-70 Valkyrie
The B-70 Valkyrie, conceived to replace the B-52 Stratofortress and B-58 Hustler, represented a revolution in strategic aviation, designed to fly over enemy airspace at extreme altitudes and speeds exceeding Mach 3.

This bomber, praised by a generation of officers influenced by the Combined Bomber Offensive of World War II, was seen as the future of the United States Air Force. Beyond its operational capabilities, the B-70 Valkyrie stood out for its aesthetic design, reminiscent more of a spacecraft than a conventional aircraft, a legacy that endures in its prototype exhibited at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

However, the Valkyrie project ran into significant financial and strategic obstacles. The investment required for its development and production raised questions among key figures such as President Eisenhower and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, especially in a context where intercontinental ballistic missiles promised to be a more effective and safer means of deploying nuclear weapons.

The evolution of Soviet interception and air defense capabilities also questioned the operational viability of the B-70, increasing the risks associated with its primary mission.

After the construction of just two prototypes and the loss of one of them in an incident during a demonstration, the B-70 program was suspended, giving way years later to the B-1B, which, although it shared some similarities with the Valkyrie, marked a different approach to strategic air strategy.

History suggests that the cancellation of the B-70, although controversial, likely prevented a diversion of critical resources from other vital aspects of military air capability, including tactical aviation and missile force. The operational flexibility demonstrated by the B-52 and B-1B, attributable in part to their greater crew capabilities, contrasts with the limitations that the Valkyrie would have imposed.

McNamara’s decision to cancel the program can be viewed retrospectively as a safeguard against a potential procurement crisis that would have negatively impacted the Air Force for decades, emphasizing the importance of adaptability and prudence in weapons systems development.

The A-12 Avenger: A Stealthy Unfulfilled Promise in Naval Aviation

A-12 Avenger: The Stealth Bomber on Aircraft Carriers
A-12 Avenger: The Stealth Bomber on Aircraft Carriers

The vision of integrating a stealth attack bomber capable of operating from aircraft carriers emerged in the mid-1980s, with the United States Navy seeking a replacement for the A-6 Intruder. In this context, McDonnell Douglas proposed the A-12 Avenger, an innovative flying wing design reminiscent of the B-2 Spirit but on a smaller scale.

This project promised to revolutionize the concept of deep strikes, combining stealth technology with the versatility of aero-naval operations. The expectation extended to the Air Force, considering the A-12 Avenger as a potential successor to the F-111 Aardvark.

However, the A-12 Avenger faced insurmountable challenges. Initial predictions about its stealth coating turned out to be excessively optimistic, leading to modifications that increased its weight and, therefore, its development costs.

The situation worsened when it coincided with the end of the Cold War, at which time defense budgets were significantly reduced. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney made the decision to cancel the A-12 Avenger, directing resources toward projects considered less risky.

The cancellation of the A-12 Avenger left a gap in the Navy’s stealth deep strike capability, which opted for the F/A-18 Super Hornet as an interim solution, sacrificing stealth innovation for a conventional upgrade of already available fighters.

The need for a stealth carrier strike platform remained, eventually leading to the development of the F-35C. A program that has experienced significant fluctuations in its perception and results.

The choice of the Super Hornet involved a temporary renunciation of deep strike capability, a decision whose repercussions spanned decades.

Currently, the Air Force focuses its efforts on the Next Generation Bomber, a project that, in some ways, is reminiscent of the ambitious A-12 Avenger. The demise of the Avenger redefined the capabilities and strategies of the United States Navy’s embarked wing, marking a period of transition to new paradigms in naval combat aviation.

Combat systems of the future: An ambitious project

A-12 Avenger: The Stealth Bomber on Aircraft Carriers

At the beginning of the 21st century, the concept of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) inspired the United States Army to undertake an ambitious acquisition plan called “Future Combat Systems” (FCS).

This program sought to radically transform land warfare by integrating precision-guided munitions, high-speed data processing, real-time communications, and advanced sensory capabilities, promising unprecedented lethality and decisiveness.

The FCS aimed not only at a new combat paradigm but also at creating more agile and deployable brigades, marking a new era in military strategy.

However, subsequent events, particularly the onset of the war in Iraq under the Bush administration, presented significant challenges to the development of the FCS. The war diverted intellectual material and critical resources that were intended for improving the FCS toward the immediate need to confront a conventional conflict.

Furthermore, the emergence of specific operational demands, such as the need for ambush-resistant vehicles (MRAP), contradicted the basic principles of the FCS, demonstrating a discrepancy between theory and battlefield practice.

The experience in Iraq also tested the validity of the RMA, showing that, despite technological advancement, irregular adversaries could inflict significant damage on better-equipped conventional forces.

This confrontation with reality led to a gradual decline of the FCS program, whose comprehensive vision was replaced by the fragmented implementation of specific capabilities, detached from the original concept of a “system of systems.”

As the U.S. Army faced the challenges of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was forced to integrate new and existing systems on an ad hoc basis, moving away from the futuristic vision of the FCS.

While some elements of the FCS have persisted, the project as a whole yielded to the budgetary pressures and practical demands of modern combat, marking a turning point in military planning and the conception of future combat capabilities.

Zumwalt’s alternative vision: Small aircraft carriers

A-12 Avenger: The Stealth Bomber on Aircraft Carriers
The United States Navy’s newest warship, USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) passes the Coronado Bridge on its way to Naval Base San Diego. Zumwalt is the lead ship of a class of next-generation multi-mission destroyers, now homeported in San Diego. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Anthony N. Hilkowski/Released)

The naval strategy of opting for numerous smaller aircraft carriers rather than a few giant ones has been a topic of debate in military history. During the Second World War, both the Royal Navy and the United States Navy demonstrated the effectiveness of escort carriers in anti-submarine and amphibious operations, suggesting a valuable precedent for the adoption of a similar approach in more modern times.

In the 1970s, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, then Chief of Naval Operations, proposed the concept of the Sea Control Ship (SCS), a class of light aircraft carriers designed to protect sea lanes against aerial and underwater threats, especially those from the Soviet Union.

This proposal came at a critical time, with the rising cost of the Nimitz-class supercarriers and the imminent retirement of the Essex-class carriers, pointing to the need for an economical alternative that could sustain air operations without requiring the full capabilities of a large aircraft carrier group.

Zumwalt’s idea of ​​adopting a fleet of smaller, more versatile aircraft carriers reflected a pragmatic strategy to ensure naval supremacy in the theater of a conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

Inspired by the success of escort carriers in the Battle of the Atlantic, the SCS would have offered an adaptable and cost-effective solution for maritime defense, enabling a more flexible and dispersed presence in the world’s oceans.

The proposal, although not fully realized, raises interesting reflections on how innovation in fleet composition could have altered US naval doctrine and its preparation for future conflicts.

Zumwalt’s vision for small aircraft carriers could have redefined the nature of naval power projection, offering a more dynamic and distributed approach to confronting global threats in the Cold War era and beyond.