In the 1960s, the TFX was meant to be a plane for all missions and services – kind of like the Joint Strike Fighter today. While it never achieved that goal, the United States Air Force still got a superb deep-strike aircraft out of the TFX program in the F-111, commonly called the Aardvark.
While the Army and Marine Corps never got the close-air support variants (they would have to wait for the A-10 Thunderbolt and AV-8B Harrier), and the Navy’s F-111B died due to performance issues (including one Admiral who laid down his career when he told Congress the unvarnished truth about its shortcomings), the Air Force’s F-111A, and the later D, E, and F versions, not only entered service but soon proved to be deadly to America’s enemies. The F-111 saw action in the Vietnam War and Desert Storm, while also being selected to hit Tripoli in response to the Berlin disco bombing. An electronic warfare version, the EF-111A, known as the Raven, also saw action, and in Desert Storm, one EF-111A scored a kill against an Iraqi fighter.
The F-111 was fast (with a top speed of Mach 2.5), and it could carry over 31,000 pounds of bombs. Some of its loadouts included as many as 36 Mk 82 500-pound bombs (B-52s currently in service can carry 51), but it really became known as a precision bomber with the advent of the Paveway laser-guided bombs and TV-guided bombs. Not that it was a slouch when delivering the “dumb” or “iron” bombs, either, and could deliver those bombs as far as 1300 miles away and return to base.
The Aardvark, as it was called (based on its nose), was also versatile. While most were purchased as tactical bombers for the United States Air Force, Australia purchased a number of F-111Cs – the only export customer for this aircraft. The Aardvark left American service in 1996, but served for fourteen more years with Australia before being replaced by the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Another version, the FB-111A, became known as the Switchblade by Strategic Air Command, and could carry 37,500 pounds of bombs. The Switchblade left American service in 1993, but some would serve with the Royal Australian Air Force alongside the F-111Cs.
But has an opportunity been missed? Could the F-111 and FB-111 have served longer? With the new generations of precision-guided weapons, like the JDAM, and standoff systems like the JASSM, JASSM-ER, and JSOW, among others, could the Vark have remained a valuable part of America’s arsenal?
One might think that the Tomahawk cruise missile and other systems have rendered the F-111 and FB-111 superfluous. The Tomahawk has long range, can be launched from a surface ship or a submarine close in to shore, and it doesn’t risk any personnel. But the F-111 and FB-111 bring some advantages to the table as well: Both carry larger payloads, and they are also able to hit a wide variety of targets. That combination of carrying a wide variety of ordnance, and a lot of it, would make them formidable assets just about anywhere across the globe, whether it is striking ISIS in Syria, countering China’s efforts to dominate the South China Sea, or supporting American troops on the ground in Afghanistan.
The last F-111s were delivered in 1976, and were retired after 20 years of service. Seeing as how the B-52 has served for over 60 years, and is expected to serve for at least another 25, perhaps it is time to think about bringing back the Aardvark. It might pay huge dividends.