Key Point: In the end, the F-22 was the safe choice for the Pentagon.
The Department of Defense (DoD) didn’t have to opt for the F-35. In the 1990s, both Boeing and Lockheed Martin bid for the next big fighter contract, a plane that would serve in each of the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, as well as grace the air forces of many US allies. Boeing served up the X-32; Lockheed the X-35.
The Pentagon chose the F-35. Given the struggles of the last decade with the Joint Strike Fighter, it’s impossible not to wonder about what might have been; what if DoD had gone with Boeing’s X-32 instead, or with some combination of the two aircraft?
At the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon proposed a joint fighter project in the hopes of reducing the overall logistical tail of fielded forces, as well as in minimizing development costs. Each of the three fighter-flying services needed replacements for the 4th generation aircraft in their inventory; the F-15 and F-16 in the case of the Air Force, and the F/A-18 and AV-8B Harrier in the case of the Navy and the Marine Corps. The new fighter, thus, needed conventional, carrier, and STOVL (short take off vertical landing) configurations.
DoD had not, historically, had good luck with joint programs, but the hope was that increased “jointness” between the services, combined with more advanced production techniques and more carefully refined logistics procedures, would make a shared fighter worth the effort. All parties understood that the winner of the competition would likely enjoy a great deal of export success, as many air forces around the world required a fifth-generation fighter. In short, this was the biggest deal on the horizon of the post-Cold War defense industry. Boeing and Lockheed Martin won contracts to develop two demonstrators each.
Built to the same specifications, the X-32 and the F-35 had relatively similar performance parameters. Deciding to compete on cost, Boeing designed the X-32 around a single-piece delta wing that would fit all three variants. The X-32 lacked the shaft-driven turbofan lift of the F-35, instead using the same thrust vectoring system as the AV-8 Harrier. The X-32’s system was less advanced than the F-35’s, but also less complex.
The X-32 was designed to reach Mach 1.6 in conventional flight. It could carry either six AMRAAMs or two missiles and two bombs in its internal weapons bay. Range and stealth characteristics were generally similar to those expected of the F-35, and the body of the aircraft could accommodate much of the advanced electronic equipment that the F-35 now carries.
One thing is for certain; the X-32 was a ridiculously ugly aircraft. It looked like nothing so much as the spawn of an A-7 Corsair and a hideously deformed manatee. The F-35 is no prize from an aesthetic point of view, lacking the sleek, dangerous lines of the F-22, but the X-32 made the F-35 look positively sexy by comparison. How much should this matter? Not a bit. How much did it matter? Good question. Fighter pilots don’t like to fly aircraft that look like they could be run over by Florida speed boat.
On more concrete grounds, Boeing’s strategy probably hurt its chances. Instead of building one demonstrator capable of fulfilling the requirements of all three services, Boeing built two; one capable of conventional supersonic flight, and the other of vertical take-off and landing. Lockheed’s prototype could do both. The Pentagon also liked the innovative (if risky) nature of the F-35’s turbolift. Finally, Lockheed’s experience with the F-22 suggested that it could probably handle another large stealth fighter project.
Chosen in 2001, the F-35 went on to become the largest Pentagon procurement project of all time, and one of the most beset by trouble. The X-32 escaped all of the most significant challenges to the F-35. The X-32 never faced decades of testing and redesign; it never saw massive cost overruns; it was never subjected to an endless series of articles about how it couldn’t out-dogfight an F-16A. Nostalgia for what might have been is common in aircraft competitions, and it’s impossible to say whether the X-32 would have run into the same difficulties of the F-35. Given the complex nature of advanced fighter projects, the answer is almost certainly “yes.”
But in hindsight, it almost certainly would have made more sense to go with a VSTOL alternative fighter for the Marine Corps. This would have eliminated the most complex aspect of the “joint” project; the need to create an aircraft that shared critical components across three wildly different variants. This also would have helped spread the wealth across different major defense contractors, a practice that has increasingly become a Pentagon priority. Of course, given that the STOVL aspects of the F-35 and X-32 were baked in at the proposal stage, this would have required turning the clock back all the way to 1993, not just to 2001.
The Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) competition, staged at the end of the Cold War, yielded a pair of remarkable fighter designs. The United States would eventually select the F-22 Raptor, widely acknowledged as the most capable air superiority aircraft of the early twenty-first century. The loser, the YF-23, now graces museums in Torrance, California and Dayton, Ohio.
How did the Pentagon decide on the F-22, and what impact did that decision have? We will never know, but going with the F-22 Raptor may have saved the Pentagon some major headaches.
The origins of the ATF competition came in the early 1980s, when it became apparent that the Soviets were planning to field fighters (the MiG-29 and the Su-27) capable of competing effectively with the U.S. Air Force’s (USAF) F-15/F-16 “high-low” mix. The ATF would allow the US to re-establish its advantages, potentially on grounds (notably stealth) where the Soviets would struggle to compete.
To great degree, the success of either of the ATF competitors was overdetermined. The Soviet Union disappeared during the course of the competition, and the major European aerospace powers largely declined to compete on the same terrain (stealth, supercruise, and eventually sensor fusion). Either the F-22 or the F-23 would become the finest fighter of the early 21st century; the only question was which aircraft would win the investment of DoD. And each plane had its advantages. The YF-23 enjoyed superior supercruise, and in some accounts better stealth performance, over the F-22. The F-22 offered a somewhat simpler, less risky design, along with an extraordinary degree of agility that made it an awesome dogfighter.
As Dave Majumdar pointed out a year ago, political and bureaucratic factors contributed to the selection of the F-22. Fed up with Northrop and (the still independent) McDonnell Douglas in the wake of the B-2 and A-12 projects, the Pentagon preferred Lockheed. The US Navy disliked the F-23 for idiosyncratic reasons, and hoped it would get a crack at a heavily modified F-22. For its part, the Air Force preferred the gaudy maneuverability of the F-22, which gave it an advantage in nearly every potential combat situation. In a sense, the F-22 (and to some extent its Russian competitor, the PAK-FA) represent the ultimate expression of the jet-age air superiority fighter. They can challenge and defeat opponents in every potential aspect of a fight, while also having stealth characteristics that allow them to engage (or refuse an engagement) under highly advantageous circumstances.
Had the ATF competition not taken place coincident with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the YF-23 might have stood a chance for resurrection. Some of its characteristics were sufficiently advanced that they could have drawn further attention and investment. Moreover, building the F-23 alongside the F-22 could have been justified on grounds of maintaining the health of the US defense industrial base; as it was, the selection of the Lockheed aircraft undoubtedly contributed to the decision to consolidate Boeing and McDonnell Douglas.
As is the case with the X-32, the YF-23 never faced the most dramatic problems to afflict the F-22 Raptor. It never experienced cost overruns, technology failures, software snafus, or pilot-killing respiratory issues. Those problems, which regularly afflict new defense projects (in fairness, the pilot suffocation is largely idiosyncratic to the Raptor) were consequential. In context of the broader demands of the War on Terror, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates curtailed the F-22 production run at 187 operational aircraft, just as the fighter was working through its teething troubles. Although understandable at the time, this left the USAF with a fighter deficit that only the F-35 could fill.
Had the YF-23 enjoyed a smoother development path (a huge “if”), the fighter might not have faced such a hostile environment as it entered service. But given that the YF-23 was generally perceived to be the more innovative (and therefore riskier) design, and that it had a slightly higher price tag, the chances that it could have sailed through without a hitch are correspondingly low. And trouble with design and production might have left the USAF with even fewer operational fighters.