Platforms That Never Were: A-6F

The A-6F Intruder II was a proposed upgrade of the long-serving attack aircraft that would have added more advanced engines, a more capable radar, and air to air missile capability. Although initially approved, it was cancelled in favor of the ill-fated A-12 Avenger, which in turn collapsed. Previous posts in the “platforms that never were” series talked about how many could be built. This talks more about the capabilities, as looking at the numbers considered gives a reasonable and simple one squadron per carrier, with little likelihood of foreign sales.

I’ve always loved the A-6F, would have approved it (with full hindsight) over the too-ambitious Terrible Triangle, enjoy using it in Command-and can see its limitations.

First, the most obvious one. The A-6F is still a subsonic late 1950s design frame with all the speed, maneuverability, and maintenance issues that implies. One source even claimed it to be slightly less maneuverable than its older counterpart even with the upgraded engines, simply because of the extra weight those engines would have had to counteract. (Others corroborate the statement that the re-engining was to head off more weight rather than to increase performance). Because of this, the A-6F’s emphasis was on standoff attack as its sole way of remaining survivable against increasingly powerful Soviet/Russian air defenses.  The improved synthetic aperture radar was viewed as the key, to enable it to “see” at a greater distance.

The second issue is present but is not the aircraft’s fault-better electronics were making it less relevant. Better sensors and JDAMs were making even small, light fighters capable of performing the “any time, any weather” mission that was once the Intruders reason for being. Even the standoff weapons could increasingly be carried by different units. And the payload, while still impressive, was less important as targeting shifted from large quantities of dumb bombs to small amounts of smart ones.

That leaves the range, superior to any Hornet variant. One of the most justified theories (again with full hindsight) for the A-6F being a missed opportunity comes from a change in politics. With the most likely conventional sea war shifting from a coastal clash near the Strait of Hormuz to a fight with China over the vast range of the Pacific, and with ASBMs and ASMs making the carriers keep their distance, the theory goes that range becomes more vital than planners thought it to be in the past.

This is a valid argument. The issue with applying it specifically to the Intruder II relates to its aged structure. Namely, for it to excel, the adversary would have to have weapons and a targeting complex good enough for a carrier to stay far back enough that range with existing platforms would be a massive issue-yet have an anti-air defense system poor enough that small numbers of unsupported subsonic aircraft could viably function in it. Even with lopsided procurement, this is dubious. The entire air wing would need extended range to fully address the issue.

The Super Intruder could still play a vital role in extending range, albeit a very unglamorous one. Which is to say its size and fuel capability means it can serve as a tanker, like older Intruder tanker variants. In fact, it’s not hard to see that as their longest-serving niche. Another non-exciting use for the fuel and range is as a long-endurance low intensity combatant, staying on station and occasionally dropping a Paveway/JDAM under strict coordination.

The A-6F proposal illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of incremental upgrades of mature platforms. The USN would be getting increased capability out of its 1960 platform-but it’s still a 1960 platform at heart.