In the late 1970s, Gen. Wilbur Creech, commander of the Tactical Air Command (now Air Combat Command) wanted a dual role, all weather enhanced tactical fighter (ETF) to correct what he saw as the major deficiency in the American tactical air forces − the inability to attack targets, especially mobile targets, at night. Because of budget constraints, General Creech wanted a modified version of an existing fighter rather than an entirely new aircraft. The manufacturers of the two main fighters in the Air Force inventory, General Dynamics (F-16) and McDonnell Douglas (F-15), both immediately plunged into the competition.
The main problem with the F-16 in the ETF role was its small size, so General Dynamics heavily modified it and produced a much different looking aircraft, the F-16XL. The F-16XL − which was called for a period the F-16E/F −had a “cranked arrow” delta wing that had been under test to try and produce a “supersonic cruise without afterburner” fighter. The “cranked-arrow” wing was 120 percent larger than the original wing and replaced the normal wing as well as the rear horizontal control surfaces. Carbon fiber composites kept the wing’s weight down, but the F-16XL was still 2,800 pounds heavier than the original, but still had a single engine.
Though the F-16XL never went supersonic without using its afterburner, the huge wing offered some real performance advantages, including more lift at supersonic speeds and an improved instantaneous turn rate. But the main advantages were increased fuel − the F-16XL had more than double the combat radius of the standard F-16 − and a larger surface to hang bombs and extra fuel tanks. The enlarged wing allowed a total of 27 hard points, 16 wing stations with a capacity of 750 pound each, four semi-submerged air-to-air missile stations, two wingtip stations for more air-to-air missiles, a centerline station, two wing stations for very heavy weapons or extra fuel tanks, and two stations under the “chin” air intake for the required all-weather navigation and targeting Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night system.
Unfortunately for the F-16E/F, the McDonnell-Douglas entry, the F-15E “Strike Eagle,” did not have to be heavily modified to meet ETF requirements and was also in many ways much more capable because of its greater size and two engines, which translated into longer range and a heavier bomb load.
The Air Force ultimately selected the F-15E in 1983 for development and terminated the F-16XL.
Some conspiracy theorists said the reason the F-16XL was not developed further was because the Air Force saw its capabilities as a threat to its future Advanced Tactical Fighter (which became the F-22 Raptor). They claimed an F-16XL with a higher thrust engine, the AIM-120 and a new radar, could have filled much of the F-22’s role at much lower cost. What this ignores is that much of the strength of the F-22 is in its stealth characteristics − which the F-16XL certainly did not possess.
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