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Boeing's joint strike fighter blues


Hindsight is ceiling and visibility unlimited. As patience with the F-35 Lightning II continues to wear thin among almost everyone except those closest to the program -- who point out that the jets are ripping through test points, in spite of all the bad headlines -- Boeing engineers are griping that if DoD had picked their airplane, we wouldn't have had all these problems. So writes Steve Wilhelm in the Puget Sound Biz Journal, who reports that hometown Boeing types say their jet, the X-32, should have won the Joint Strike Fighter competition, especially because of how well they said it handled short takeoffs and vertical landings.

The X-32 used a Harrier-style system of directed thrust nozzles for its STOVL variant, which advocates said was simpler and more reliable than Lockheed's system. The Marines' F-35B needs to "transform," like a Decepticon, for takeoff and landing: Its engine nozzle rotates down, a unique lift fan behind the pilot starts up, and all manner of doors and ports and hatches need to open. All this complexity has made it tricky to get Lockheed's concept into action as a production aircraft -- although, again, service officials say they're going at it like gangbusters -- and Secretary Gates has put the F-35B on probation. If the Marines can't get it right after two years... well... they'll get a stern talking to. There is no alternative for the B, service officials concede, unless the Pentagon or Congressional lawmakers want to cancel it and take away the Marines' ability to fly fast jets off big-deck amphibious ships. That's not gonna happen.

In the meantime, Boeing's fighter advocates can say they told us all so, even though there's every chance the company would have had its own problems making its X-prototypes into flyable, production F-models. During the competition, Boeing never demonstrated the full capabilities of its STOVL jet in a real-world scenario -- each time its B-version flew, it had been modified for safety or test reasons, operating without certain doors and panels or with its landing gear down. Lockheed, meanwhile, made aviation history by showing its F-35B could make a short takeoff, fly supersonic, and then land vertically.

We'll never know what 10 years of development and hundreds of billions of dollars could've done for the X-32 -- maybe it could be flying in Marine squadrons off Navy amphibious ships today. (Doubtful.) The real lesson is that even when the Defense Department sets up a program designed to save money and be efficient by using the same basic aircraft for three services... it won't. Instead it produced a very expensive "joint" program in which only one of the participants -- the Air Force -- seems truly pleased with the result. And if it did produce the perfect plane for the Marines, the nature of the competition also meant that DoD couldn't buy it.

It's funny, though: If this contest were happening today, DoD might buy F-35As and Cs from Lockheed for the Air Force and Navy, but F-32Bs from Boeing for the Marines, given today's strategy of spreading work around to placate defense giants and their surrogates in Congress. As it stands, Boeing will have to be satisfied with daydreaming about the one that got away.

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