A Strike Fighter for the Future

Jan. 1, 2002
In October, the Pentagon selected Lockheed Martin to build the Joint Strike Fighter, embarking on a 25-year effort to replace the bulk of the US fighter fleet with stealth aircraft. The announcement capped a fierce, five-year technology contest and flyoff between Lockheed and Boeing, settled the long-debated future course of US tactical aviation, and confronted Congress with serious questions about the health of the defense industrial base.

Secretary of the Air Force James G. Roche, the official in charge of selecting the JSF winner, said at a press conference to announce the choice that Lockheed Martin’s proposed aircraft and development program clearly offered “the best value for the government” across a range of competitive categories. These included technical merit of the design and flight testing of the X-35 concept demonstrator, as well as past performance of the contractor and predicted cost of the system over its lifetime.

The United States Navy and the air and naval services of the United Kingdom-partners on the project-said they concurred with Roche’s pick.

The JSF will replace the F-16 and A-10 fighter and attack aircraft in the Air Force, early model F/A-18s in the Navy, and aging AV-8B Short Takeoff and Vertical Landing fighters in the Marine Corps. Specially configured but highly similar variants of the JSF will be built for each of those services.

The government promptly signed contracts-one worth about $19 billion for Lockheed Martin and teammates Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems and one for more than $4 billion to Pratt & Whitney, which will develop the aircraft’s F135 engine. These initial contracts cover about 10 years of development and flight testing and will pay for 22 aircraft–14 flyable airplanes, seven ground-test items, and one stealth “pole model” test airframe. Before the development phase ends, however, the Pentagon likely will award more contracts covering 465 initial production aircraft.

First Flight 2006

The first flight of the Air Force version is slated for early 2006, and initial operational capability is planned for USAF and the Marine Corps in 2010. The Navy and Britain’s Royal Air Force and Royal Navy will have their first squadrons in 2012.

The JSF will be an enormous defense program. Plans call for Lockheed Martin to build about 3,000 fighter aircraft for the US and UK over 28 years or more. The work will make Lockheed Martin, near the end of this decade, the exclusive supplier of manned fighters to the nation’s military forces.

In addition, the JSF builder will be well-positioned to dominate the overseas fighter market, where experts see potential for sales of another 3,000 airplanes to foreign forces. Along with the prize of building the actual jets goes a training and support package, including simulators, as well as the inside track on upgrades and modifications.

Pete Aldridge, DOD’s acquisition chief, noted that the value of the fighter contract ultimately “could be in excess of $200 billion” and acknowledged that it is the largest US military program ever.

Work on the 126-month development phase of the project began immediately.

“The train has left the station,” said JSF program director Air Force Brig. Gen. John L. Hudson. Pieces of the aircraft will be made at numerous team locations, but final assembly will be performed in Fort Worth, Tex., on the same mile-long assembly line that churned out thousands of F-16s.

Only a few months ago, there was no certainty there would even be a JSF program. The Bush Administration, in the midst of a months-long review of national military strategy, made it known it was considering scrapping one of three new fighters on the Pentagon’s books: the JSF, USAF’s F-22 Raptor, or the Navy’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. The JSF was considered the most vulnerable because, unlike the other two aircraft, it was not yet in production and therefore had a limited political constituency in terms of jobs and suppliers.

However, in announcing the decision to press ahead with the JSF program, Aldridge acknowledged that the fighter fleets of the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps are rapidly aging. The Pentagon’s Joint Requirements Oversight Council had reaffirmed the urgent need for the JSF to replace its wearing-out inventory of fighters, many of which are already near or at the end of their planned service lives.

Aldridge chairs the Defense Acquisition Board, which just prior to the contract go-ahead, decided that the JSF is in fact a necessary program, the technology is mature enough to proceed into development, and the project is affordable within expected Pentagon budgets. This blessing allowed the contracts to be signed and also gave assurance that the program would not be reduced in scope, at least not in the near future.

Close Scrutiny

Affordability was “one of the questions that we looked at very carefully,” Aldridge said. He noted that tactical aviation has averaged about an 18 percent share of the Pentagon’s budget over the last 20 years, getting as high as 25 percent during the mid-1980s. In the coming decade, all tactical aviation procurement–not just the JSF–will stay under that average until Fiscal 2007. Even after that, “the peak of the spending for Tacair will not reach but 22 percent of the DOD budget, less than what we did in the mid-’80s,” Aldridge said.

The same Pentagon panel had, less than two months before, given a green light to proceed with production of the F-22, which will replace the F-15C in the air superiority mission.

Three versions of the JSF will be built, and all will be stealthy.

The Air Force model–plans call for building 1,763 of them for the service–will be the least expensive of the three. It is expected to cost about $40 million a copy in 2001 dollars. It will replace the F-16 and have similar or better aerodynamic performance–a top speed of about Mach 1.8 and able to turn at nine Gs–as well as a combat radius of 690 miles. Internally, it will carry two 2,000-pound bombs. After enemy air defenses have been beaten down and stealth is less important, the Air Force JSF will also be able to carry external stores and fuel tanks, as well as missiles on wingtip launchers, all of which greatly diminish the low observability qualities of an aircraft.

The JSF used by the Air Force and Marines will be slightly larger than the F-16, with wingspan four feet wider but length only one foot longer. The fuselage, however, will be far deeper, to hold munitions and fuel internally. Whereas the F-16 needs to carry bulky and heavy targeting and vision pods, the JSF will be externally “clean,” and all optics will be accommodated through a faceted aperture under the nose.

The airplane will also have basic flight displays on the inside of the helmet visor, helmet-mounted cuing of weapons, and respond to certain voice commands.

USAF plans to use the JSF in much the same way as it now employs the F-16. It will principally be an attack aircraft but with sufficient aerodynamic agility to win dogfights with almost any other aircraft. Because of its stealth and nimbleness, said Aldridge, the JSF will “provide an air-to-air capability second only to the F-22 air superiority fighter.” He has said previously that, at half the price of rival foreign fighters and twice the capability, the JSF could doom foreign fighter makers.

Combat Persistence

Gen. John P. Jumper, Air Force Chief of Staff, said the JSF will provide persistence over the battlefield in future combat operations because it will be numerous enough to strike in many places simultaneously and stealthy enough to survive against emerging air defense threats.

Because the Air Force JSF won’t arrive for another decade, USAF will have to invest several billion dollars in a systems and structural upgrade of the F-16 fleet, which will start to reach retirement age in large numbers beginning in 2005.

Jumper has said he expects some of the JSF buy will go to Air National Guard units as well as for active squadrons, to keep the Total Force balanced in its equipment.

The Navy model will be capable of landing on an aircraft carrier. To achieve that, it will have larger and heavier landing gear, more structural strength, an arresting hook, and larger wings for better range and carrier landing characteristics. The Navy plans to build 480 JSFs, at a 2001 unit cost of about $50 million. It will be about the size of the C model of the F/A-18.

The USMC version will have Short Takeoff and Vertical Landing capability and will be the first operational STOVL aircraft that will also be capable of achieving supersonic speeds. The Marines plan to deploy their JSFs at unimproved forward airstrips and on amphibious assault ships to be near the action when close air support is needed for ground troops. A total of 609 STOVL versions of JSF are planned for the Marine Corps, which will pay about $45 million apiece for them in current dollars. They will have a combat radius of about 500 miles, the cost of having the capability to take off and land vertically.

The UK will decide within two years whether it wants to procure the carrier version or STOVL model of the JSF. The choice will be made after Britain makes a more basic decision about the style and design of the next generation of British aircraft carriers. In any event, the British requirement is for 150 airplanes.

The UK has been a partner in the JSF since the inception of the program in 1996. In exchange for about $2 billion in contributions to the project, the UK was able to have input into the aircraft’s performance requirements and basic design. It will also receive its aircraft concurrently with the US.

Six other nations are likely to join in the development phase. They are Canada, Denmark, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, and Turkey. Those that participate will pay a share of development costs. In return, they will receive some share of the development work and move to the front of the line for foreign sales of the aircraft.

About 35 nations operate the F-16, F/A-18, or AV-8B, and all would be considered candidates to purchase the JSF at some point in the future. Pentagon and industry officials say the biggest issue in export would be the level of stealth the US would be willing to release to a customer, as well as the degree of sensor fusion and access to US combat information systems.

Congressional Unease

The JSF has always been structured as a winner-take-all contract; whoever emerged with the winning design would build all 3,000 airplanes planned. The scheme has been questioned numerous times by members of Congress who are reluctant to concentrate all fighter work with a single contractor facing no competition.

Jerry Daniels, president and chief executive officer of Boeing Military Aircraft and Missile Systems, acknowledged at a press conference to discuss why the company lost in its bid for the JSF work, that “the danger of winner-take-all … is that one company–clearly now, that is Boeing–could get out of the fighter business.” However, he noted, such an event “isn’t going to happen tomorrow.”

At least through the end of this decade, Boeing will continue to build the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and it is a major subcontractor to Lockheed on the F-22, production of which is scheduled to run through 2012. Moreover, Boeing stands a good chance of selling F-15Es to South Korea, so Boeing will likely be producing fighter airplanes for at least another 10 years.

However, the “perishable commodity” is the knowledge of engineers who are skilled in designing fighters, who know “how to take metal and composite materials and glue and put it into something that weighs 30,000 pounds but you can’t find it with a radar,” Daniels observed. This capability, which he called “a national asset,” will dissipate without “meaningful work” to do in fighter design.

The Pentagon has reviewed the winner-take-all approach at Congress’ insistence-three times in 2000 alone, Aldridge noted–and still found the approach to be the most cost-effective. Various Pentagon and independent analyses estimated that setting up a second production line for JSF could cost between $1 billion and $4 billion, depending on how much production capability is duplicated.

Aldridge noted Boeing’s ongoing work on the F-22 and Super Hornet and also pointed out “there’s still design work going on [with] unmanned aircraft and unmanned combat aircraft.” Boeing’s design teams would be “appropriate” to work on these, he said. Furthermore, DOD has put into the Fiscal 2002 budget some money to begin work on “a new long-range strike platform that could have capabilities far out into the future,” Aldridge said.

In the case of prime contractors, “there’s plenty of work,” he concluded. He added that Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles and other unmanned systems hold much promise. “When you get to the period of 2025 or 2040,” said Aldridge, “it’s not clear that manned aircraft competition will exist at all,” possibly rendering the question of preserving more than one manufacturer moot. In fact, some industry and Pentagon officials have speculated that if Boeing’s defense-suppression UCAV performs well, more of them could be purchased at the expense of some cuts to the JSF buy.

Daniels admitted that UCAVs offer a distinct opportunity for Boeing but that the long-range strike platform will not enter a design phase until near the end of this decade, too far out to help cushion the loss of the JSF program.

Man From Missouri

The Missouri and Washington Congressional delegations-representing the largest concentrations of Boeing workers-introduced legislation that would order the Pentagon to give some JSF work to Boeing as an industrial base-saving measure. Missouri Republican Sen. Christopher Bond has called a second production line a national “insurance policy.”

Aldridge, however, said that the two teams knew going into the competition that the result would be a winner-take-all, and they structured their teams and assigned work share and risk within them on that basis.

“If Lockheed Martin wishes to use the unique talents of Boeing … they are free to do so,” Aldridge said. “We’re not forcing them to do it.” He later acknowledged it would be “politically astute” of Lockheed Martin to find some work for Boeing on the project. For its part, Lockheed Martin said it would entertain assigning a work share to Boeing if the government asked the company to do so. However, a Lockheed official noted that, with 18 percent of work share already assigned to Northrop Grumman and 12 percent to BAE Systems, “there’s not a lot of room to play around with this.”

The Pentagon would oppose any legislation mandating a share to Boeing, Aldridge said. In a letter to concerned members of Congress, he noted that the winner-take-all approach was validated as the most efficient way to conduct the program and that creating additional assembly lines or redundant manufacturing capabilities would add to the cost and delay the project. He emphasized that there will be a rigorous engine competition on the program and that the Pentagon is also seeking ways to expand competition on the radar and other critical avionics.

Boeing is also considered likely to get substantial Air Force orders for 767 widebody transports to serve as tankers and replacement airframes for the E-8 Joint STARS, RC-135 Rivet Joint, and possibly the E-3 AWACS fleets. Roche has suggested leasing the airplanes as a means of speeding up their acquisition, saying the airframes were urgently needed “yesterday.”

F135 engines for the JSF will be made initially by Pratt & Whitney, but General Electric-Rolls Royce will produce a competing power plant called the F136. The two engines will have to be functionally identical in the way they mount on the airplane, in the procedures for their maintenance, and in the software that runs them, so as to reduce engine-unique spare parts and processes.

“We want it so that you can take out a Pratt engine and put in a GE engine, and the pilot will never know the difference,” Hudson said. Pratt & GE will compete for JSF engine production in lots, in an arrangement akin to the “great engine war” of the 1980s between the F100 and F110 power plants.

No Rush

In the run-up to the Quadrennial Defense Review, several area study teams noted that the Navy is still without a stealth airplane and, under the JSF schedule, will not get one for another decade. Several panels suggested the JSF be accelerated, for at least the Navy version.

Aldridge said that “we’d love to have this airplane today” but the Pentagon will not rush the program.

“We’re going to make sure we do it right,” he explained, adding that the JSF will follow a “spiral development” plan in which early models will not have “100 percent” of the ultimate capability planned for the type. The JSFs will be improved in block upgrades, and early models will be retrofitted as more advanced avionics, software, and weapons become available.

Hudson, too, acknowledged that the development program has been laid out in a well-paced, “logical” fashion and that tinkering with it would likely not produce airplanes much faster but would certainly raise the cost “and the levels of risk that we associate with this program.”

Prior to the JSF go-ahead, the General Accounting Office advised Congress to slow the program, arguing that, while good progress had been made in reducing technological risk, the program was still not a “low risk” venture. The GAO warned that cost overruns and schedule delays could loom in the future if certain of the program’s business, manufacturing, and weapons initiatives don’t pan out. The Pentagon rejected the assertion and insisted that the risks in JSF are well-understood and well within reason.

Lockheed Martin was the “clear winner” of the competition, Roche said, adding that the outcome was not “a squeaker” but also not a shutout, either.

“It became clear, as we went through this process, that the case built more and more strongly” for the airplane that will derive from the X-35 demonstrator, Roche added.

Lockheed Martin JSF leader Tom Burbage said “our biggest gamble” was the lift system in the STOVL version. This machine uses a swivel-down rear exhaust, coupled by a shaft to a vertically mounted “lift fan” behind the cockpit. The two posts of thrust-one of which is cool “fan” air and not engine exhaust-made for a cooler environment around the airplane, as well as more lifting power at lower engine power levels.

The swiveling rear exhaust is a licensed design from the Yakovlev design bureau in Russia, which tried it out on the Yak-141 STOVL fighter.

“It was all or nothing,” Burbage said. “If the propulsion concept didn’t work, we obviously weren’t going to be competitive.”

Daniels, the Boeing executive, said the lift fan concept was “probably the single most important feature” of the competition.

Advantage: Lift Fan

Boeing’s proposal called for “direct lift,” meaning the engine was providing all the raw power to raise the airplane. This meant it had to run hotter, which probably cost Boeing points in life-cycle costs; the Boeing proposal would have burned up engines more quickly, Daniels allowed. The Lockheed Martin proposal also provided more lifting power, despite the added weight of the lift fan, 60 percent more than with the engine alone.

“We had thin margins on some parameters, where Lockheed had very strong margins on those same parameters,” Daniels said. As requirements to carry more ordnance were added, Boeing’s margin shrank.

“We’re basically using an engine where we’re diverting the thrust to get us direct lift,” Daniels said in a press conference. “With the fan system, they’ve effectively created what is like another engine in the aircraft. So they’re getting much more efficiency.”

“In the non-STOVL versions, the lift fan is replaced by a fuel tank.”

The Pentagon told Boeing that the company had scored slightly better on prior performance and management but had not scored as well as Lockheed on airplane capabilities, Daniels reported. Aircraft unit costs were about the same, he added.

Burbage said the “challenge now is to make sure we’ve got the life-cycle cost dimension” under control. Although most of the technologies going into the JSF were tested either in the factory or on the X-plane demonstrators, long-term reliability and maintainability haven’t been proven “because these were very abbreviated flight [test] programs,” he said.

Former JSF program director Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Michael A. Hough said the two JSF concept demonstrators–Lockheed’s was the X-35 and Boeing’s the X-32–turned in phenomenal performances and rarely missed a flight-test hop because of system glitches and missed none due to engine failure. To achieve such a thing with experimental aircraft was “unprecedented,” Hough said, and validated the new computer-aided design systems employed in their construction.

Lockheed used two aircraft to demonstrate the capabilities of all three versions. The Air Force model was designated the X-35A and flew more than 27 hours on 27 flights in just 30 days. The same airplane, redesignated X-35B, was the STOVL model with the lift fan installed; it flew 21.5 hours over 39 flights in 45 days. The X-35C was the carrier version, which had heavier landing gear and Navy-specific equipment and wings. It racked up 58 hours over 73 flights in 85 days. The flight test schedule was “aggressive,” Burbage noted.

There is no plan to use the demonstrators for any further testing. Hudson said there would be a certain amount of risk in doing so, since they were designed for a brief round of use and not extended flying. Moreover, although the X-35 strongly resembles the proposed airplane-which may be called the F-35 or F-24–it was not a prototype. Hudson has had “lots of requests” from museums around the world for the demonstrator aircraft.

Burbage said Lockheed will achieve a maximum production rate on the JSF at approximately 17 a month in 2011. The Fort Worth plant built F-16s at a “considerably higher” rate during the late 1980s, but the JSF figure does not count foreign sales. Burbage said the facility can accommodate more than 17 per month but declined to give a figure.

Born in Crisis

The JSF program grew out of a defense financial crisis in the early 1990s. USAF needed a cheap, lightweight fighter to replace the F-16, the Navy wanted a stealthy medium bomber, and the Marines wanted a new jump jet to replace the AV-8B Harrier. As a cost-saving measure, the three programs were merged, to the catcalls of both those in the military and industry. It was considered almost impossible to build an airplane that could satisfy such divergent requirements without being a jack of all trades, master of none.

Burbage said he himself had doubts it could be done.

“Back in those days, I’m not sure we had the tools to do it,” he said. “Even as recently as three or four years ago, … the industry really didn’t have the capacity to design a family of airplanes where no user paid any penalty for what the other guy needed.”

However, “today, with our 3-D, solid engineering modeling tools, and just the pure processing power of the computers, you can in fact create these collaborative engineering environments,” in which the talents of geographically dispersed companies can work together on a design, create templates, and wind up with parts that mate perfectly, Burbage said.

He also said the services demonstrated great discipline in holding their requirements to those that were absolutely needed. That made the joint solution possible.

“Once the airplane gets off the ground and raises the landing gear, they all do the same thing,” said Burbage. “They’re all multirole combat aircraft. … The challenge really is to … accommodate all the different basing requirements without penalizing one guy for the other.”