Meet the X-32: The Plane That Could Have Replaced the F-35
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Key point: The military had a few options to choose from when looking for the next stealth fighter. It ultimately opted for the F-35.
The Ministry of Defense did not have to choose the F-35. In the 1990s, both Boeing and Lockheed Martin competed for the next major hunting contract, an aircraft that was to be used in the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps and that was to grace the air forces of many U.S. allies. Boeing operated the X-32; Lockheed the X-35.
The Pentagon chose the F-35. Given the struggles with the Joint Strike Fighter of the past decade, it's impossible not to wonder what could have been. What if DoD had driven the Boeing X-32 or a combination of the two planes instead?
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At the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon proposed a joint hunting project to reduce the overall logistical size of the task force and minimize development costs. Each of the three combat flight 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 Marine Corps. The new fighter therefore required conventional, carrier and STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) configurations.
DoD hadn't been lucky with shared programs in the past, but the hope was that increased “commonality” between services, combined with more advanced production techniques and carefully refined logistics processes, would make a common fighter worth the effort. All parties were aware that the competition winner would likely have great export success as many air forces around the world needed a fifth generation fighter. In short, this was the largest post-Cold War defense business deal. Boeing and Lockheed Martin received orders to develop two demonstrators each.
The X-32 and F-35 were built to the same specifications and had relatively similar performance parameters. Boeing opted for a cost competition and designed the X-32 around a one-piece delta wing that was suitable for all three variants. The X-32 lacked the shaft-driven turbofan lift of the F-35, instead the same thrust vector system as the AV-8 Harrier was used. The system of the X-32 was less advanced than that of the F-35, but also less complex.
The X-32 was developed to achieve Mach 1.6 in conventional flight. It could carry either six AMRAAMs or two missiles and two bombs in its internal weapon bay. Range and stealth characteristics were generally similar to what was expected of the F-35, and the body of the aircraft could accommodate most of the advanced electronic equipment the F-35 now carries.
One thing is certain; The X-32 was a ridiculously ugly plane. It looked like nothing more than the spawning of an A-7 Corsair and a terribly deformed manatee. The F-35 is not a price from an aesthetic point of view since the slim, dangerous lines of the F-22 are missing, but the X-32 made the F-35 look positively sexy in comparison. How much should that matter? Not a bit. How important was that? Good question. Fighter pilots don't like to fly planes that look like they could be run over by a Florida speedboat.
For more specific reasons, Boeing's strategy has likely affected opportunities. Instead of building a demonstrator that can meet the requirements of all three services, Boeing built two; one is capable of conventional supersonic flight, the other of vertical take-off and landing. The Lockheed 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 major stealth fighter project.
The F-35 was selected in 2001 and became the largest Pentagon procurement project ever and one of the most troubled. The X-32 has mastered all the important challenges for the F-35. The X-32 has never been tested and redesigned for decades. There have never been massive cost overruns. It has never been subjected to an endless series of articles about how it couldn't beat 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 faced the same difficulties as the F-35. Given the complexity of advanced hunting projects, the answer is almost certainly "yes".
But in retrospect, it would almost certainly have made more sense to choose an alternative VSTOL fighter for the Marine Corps. This would have eliminated the most complex aspect of the “joint” project. the need to create an aircraft that shares critical components in three completely different ways. This would also have helped to spread wealth across several large defense companies, a practice that has become an increasing priority for the Pentagon. Given that the STOVL aspects of the F-35 and X-32 were already included in the proposal phase, this would of course have required the watch to be reset until 1993, and not only until 2001.
Robert Farley, a frequent TNI contributor, is the author of the Battleship Book. He is a lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat.
This first appeared in 2016.
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