Conceived as an exercise in bureaucratic compromises, the F-111 Aardvark served for three decades as a unique blend between a strategic bomber and tactical strike aircraft.
In the early years of the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force prioritized the development of strategic bombers and speedy long-range escorts to accompany them. When the Soviets responded with a slew of new surface-to-air missile systems, the Air Force realized that it needed to change course and began to make plans for a fast, low-flying bomber that could effectively evade Soviet radar systems. Meanwhile, the Navy was in the midst of a procurement search for a carrier-based interceptor to support its carrier strike groups (CSG’s). Defense Secretary Robert McNamara rolled both projects into a single program called Tactical Fighter Experimental (TFX). McNamara’s decision did not particularly please either party, but it was in keeping with his prior efforts to reduce outlays by consolidating the Navy and Air Force rosters—the prolific F-4 Phantom II is another famous fruit of McNamara’s bureaucratic labors.
The eventual product of this uneasy collaboration, the F-111 Aardvark, entered service in 1967. Its dual purpose forced some unique design innovations. With its variable-geometry wings, the F-111 overcame the traditional trade-off between high flight speeds and the ability to take off across short distances, thus satisfying the Air Force demand for speed as well as the Navy’s requirement for carrier-based deployment. The F-111’s new Pratt & Whitney TF30 afterburning engines proved an ideal match for the aircraft’s high-speed, low-altitude penetration mission, but the implementation was not without design problems that would only be solved in later F-111 variants. Yet another of the F-111’s innovations was its use of a terrain-following radar, continuously adjusting the aircraft’s flight path to avoid ground collision. This allowed the F-111 to fly remarkably low—as low as 200 feet above the surface—even during nighttime or in poor weather. Side-by-side seating facilitated improved communication between the F-111’s two crew members, giving them access to the same display interface.
The F-111’s Naval and Air Force variants were differently outfitted. In keeping with its strategic purpose, the latter could carry as many as four AGM-69 nuclear missiles. For tactical missions, the F-111 could carry AIM-9 Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missiles. Meanwhile, the Naval variant boasted AIM-54 long-range air-to-air missiles. The aircraft was likewise compatible with a wide array of heavy bombs, spread across its internal bay and four external pylons.
The F-111’s dual purpose spurred its many innovations, but ultimately proved to be its downfall. Vexed by a constant stream of performance issues, the Navy simply couldn’t make the F-111 work efficiently in a carrier-based role. The Aardvark’s design favored the Air Force, where it served until 1996.
Over 500 hundred F-111 models were built, and the Aardvark went on to serve in high-profile conflicts from the Vietnam War to Operation Desert Storm. The aircraft’s later F-111D and F-111F revisions added a slew of modern features that included a glass cockpit and the latest targeting technology, but the F-111 platform was itself becoming somewhat dated. Toward the end of the Cold War, the Aardvark was phased out by more specialized aircraft: the F-15E Strike Eagle became a staple for medium-long range strike missions, while the F-111’s strategic bomber duties were offloaded to the newer B-1B Lancer.
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.