Imagine what $5 billion could be spent on today—fixing America’s roads and other critical infrastructure, funding schools for the inner cities or simply paying down the national debt. Instead, that amount of money was used to fund the McDonnell Douglas/General Dynamics A-12 Avenger, a proposed attack aircraft that never even got off the ground.
Not to be confused with the Lockheed A-12 program from the 1960s, this project was born in the early 1980s as part of the U.S. Navy’s Advanced Tactical Aircraft (ATA) program. The goal was to develop a replacement for the Grumman A-6 Intruder with an aircraft that would utilize stealth technology.
By late 1984, design contracts were awarded to two different teams: one at McDonnell Douglas and General Dynamics; and the other at Northrop, Grumman and Vought. After the latter team dropped out, in 1988 it was left to McDonnell Douglas/General Dynamics who selected to develop the new aircraft.
Named the Avenger II in honor of the Grumman TBF/TBM torpedo bomber used during the Second World War, the A-12 was to be an all-weather, carrier-based stealth bomber. It would incorporate more advanced stealth characteristics than were used in the F-117A, as well as a significantly greater payload capability.
It was designed as a twin-seat aircraft that would be capable of reaching a maximum speed of 580 mph and have a strike radius of nearly 500 miles. As a flying-wing design, the A-12 Avenger II featured a relatively small fuselage and minimal tail surface, which significantly reduced drag. The basic version was also developed to operate as an anti-ship and close air support aircraft. Initially, the Navy sought to acquire around 620 of the A-12s, while the United States Marine Corps wanted an additional 238 aircraft and the Air Force even considered purchasing another 400 to replace its aging F-111 Aardvarks.
If the total of 1,258 aircraft had been built, the Avenger II would have the United States military’s most plentiful aircraft after the Army’s fleet of UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters.
An A Not F
Intended to serve aboard carriers, the flying wing wasn’t large in size—just slightly over 37 feet long with a wingspan that was only about 70 feet. That would have enabled two of the aircraft to still sit side-by-side on adjacent catapults on a carrier flight deck. Its sharp triangular shape earned the A-12 the nickname “the flying Dorito.”
While it could fly faster and further than the aircraft it was meant to replace, the compact size of the flying wing A-12 meant that it could only carry around 5,150 pounds of internal ordnance—a far cry from the 18,000 pounds carried by the Intruder. Instead of packing a hard punch, the A-12 Avenger II was really meant to strike targets without warning rather than to blanket a target in a bomb run.
The Navy even opted to utilize the “A” prefix to further demonstrate that the aircraft’s primary role was to be used against ground targets, despite the fact that the A-12 was to be armed with two internally-stored AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles. However, stealth not dog fighting abilities was still meant to be the aircraft’s primary defense.
Crash and Burn
The program was seen to be going smoothly, but in fact the program was behind schedule and way over budget. One issue was that the aircraft was simply too heavy and its designers were unable to reconcile that issue. Officials at the Pentagon essentially buried their head in the sand, refusing to believe the project wasn’t actually on track.
The use of composite materials was an issue, as was the maintainability. Eventually the Department of Defense (DoD) declared that the contractors simply could not complete the program as planned and then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney cancelled it outright on January 7, 1991.
That wasn’t actually the end of the matter either. The contractors were ordered to return about $2 billion spent on the program, which McDonnell Douglas and General Dynamics disputed. Legal issues dragged on for more than a decade, and only after reaching the United States Supreme Court, the DoD was ordered to return the money to the contractors.
When the contract was cancelled by the program thirty years ago, it was the largest contract termination in DoD history—but by one estimation, the A-12 had become so expensive that it could have consumed up to 70 percent of the Navy’s aircraft budget within just three years.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military.