Why buy bombers, fighters and air support machines for various branches of the armed forces, if we can equip them with one multirole aircraft? This is the exactly the aim of the modernization program executed in the US Army, which has led to the development of the F-35 Lightning II.
When in 1991 the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist (in the military sense in February, in the political sense in July), the USA could undoubtedly feel like the winners of the cold war. The North Atlantic Treaty, with the USA as its leader, survived, and its rival, uniting under its banner the so-called “people’s democracies,” fell into pieces. One of the results of the iron curtain falling, though, was that Americans wanted to feel the victory in their wallets, and expected cuts in military spending – and since the society wanted that, the most important politicians in the country also started to want it and implemented appropriate changes. The consequence was a real flood of modernization programs of the US Army at the beginning of the 1990s, and their common denominator was saving money. Interestingly, they were particularly noticeable in the Air Force.
The reason seems prosaic. All branches of the US Armed Forces apart from the US Air Force – the US Army, the US Marine Corps, and the US Navy, are so operationally autonomous that they not only have their own fleet of aircraft, but also, which is crucial, they themselves decided over decades on the type, parameters, and armament equipping the machines purchased for them. This situation obviously had its advantages – commanders and soldiers got exactly the equipment they needed; but on the other hand, it generated a huge cost, as various types of aircraft obviously require different parts, service, logistics. While in the times of the Cold War it did not bother society so much, after Communism fell and the army was supposed to be cheaper, it became one of the burning issues that needed to be solved.
Standardizing the next generations of machines was to be the cure for all these problems. To this end, two programs, strategic to the US Air Force, were initiated at the turn of 1991/1992. The first one was the Multi-Role Fighter (MRF) project, whose main task was to develop the successors for the F-16 Fighting Falcon machines used by the US Air Force, and later also for A-10S (USAF) aircraft and F/A-18C/Ds used by the US Navy. According to the original plans, MRF was to be a single-engine, single-crew machine similar in size to F-16. The cost of the aircraft was to oscillate between USD 35 and 50 million. The supervision over this program was entrusted to the Aeronautical Systems Center (ASC), located at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
The second project was the A-X (Advanced-Attack), which at the end of 1992, after new operational requirements had been added, changed its name to A/F-X (Advanced/Fighter-Attack). Originally, the aim of the A-X was to develop a successor for the Navy A-6 machines. The initial requirements for this aircraft assumed it would be a two-engine, two-crew machine, with low observable technology, advanced avionics, and long flight time. Then, the savings directives of the US Congress were implemented, making the future A-X a machine not only for the US Navy, but also for the US Air Force, first as a replacement for F-111s, and in the long term also F-15Es and F-117As. Also, additional requirements were added – high maneuverability and capability to use a full range of armament (from air-to-air missiles, through anti-radiation missiles, to bombs). It was then that the name was changed to A/F-X.
The A/F-X project, contrary to MRF, which never went beyond the concept phase, lived to see the first tender decisions. At the end of 1991, the Pentagon awarded contracts, each worth USD 20 million, to develop an initial design of the new aircraft to five consortia: Grumman/Lockheed/Boeing, Lockheed/Boeing/General Dynamics, McDonnell Douglas/Vought, Rockwell/Lockheed, and General Dynamics/McDonnell Douglas/Northrop. Regrettably, before the companies managed to fulfill the task (they had time until the end of 1992), the highest US authorities decided to freeze all aircraft projects (including MRF). Basing on the results of the Bottom-Up Review (BUR), conducted by the US Department of Defense with the underlying premise to adjust the army to the new challenges awaiting it after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1993 the A/F-X and the MRF projects were ultimately closed. Instead, the new Joint Advanced Strike Technology (JAST) program was initiated in 1994.
Searching for a Path
It must be clearly stated that contrary to MRF and A-F/X, JAST was not a typical R&D program for an aircraft of the future, but rather a project exploring and supporting the development of technology and solutions that could be incorporated into such an aircraft at some point down the line. Ultimately, the program envisioned building a tri-service family of aircraft until the end of the 1990s – a Conventional Take-Off and Landing (CTOL) variant for the US Air Force, a carrier takeoff and landing (CV) variant for the US Navy, and a Short Take-Off/Vertical Landing (STOVL) variant, intended for the US Marine Corps and the British Army. Interestingly enough, the aircraft that Lockheed had been working on since 1987 for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) had exactly the same purpose and characteristics. In 1993, the name of that program was changed to Common Affordable Lightweight Fighter (CALF). Two years later, in 1995, the Pentagon decided to close that project and merge it with JAST.
Another decision taken at the time was to convert JAST into a classic program for developing a new type of aircraft. Importantly, it was to be an international project. Before its name was officially changed in June 1996 to Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), in the fall of 1995 Great Britain signed with the USA a contract, on the strength of which after paying USD 200 million (i.e. 10% of the concept demonstration phase) it became a formal partner of the JSF project. Two years later, in 1997, Canada joined the JSF. However, the USA’s northern neighbor declared to pay “only” USD 10 million at the time.
Four American aerospace companies: McDonnell Douglas, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, competed for the multi-billion order – the US Army alone wanted to purchase over 3,000 new aircraft in various versions, and it was anticipated that foreign orders would also be quite big. In November 1996, the US Defense Department informed that the contracts, each worth USD 750 million, to develop two flying concept demonstrators would be awarded to Lockheed Martin and Boeing. The first machine was designated X-35, and the other one X-32. The CTOL variant of the aircraft was to be designated with the additional letter A (X-35A and X-32A), the STOVL with the letter B (X-35B and X-32B), and the CV with the letter C (X-35C and X-32C).
The requirements for the new machine given to the industry by the army were quite clear. It was to be a single-engine, single-crew machine with the widest possible range of armament, but also high stealth capabilities. The army was not expecting an outstanding, one-of-a-kind aircraft as regards the tasks planned for it – aerial warfare, bombing, supporting land and naval operations. The primary requirement was for the aircraft to be universal enough to serve in all the branches of the armed forces.
The Winning X-35
In October 2001, the Pentagon announced the winner of the tender – the X-35 design offered by Lockheed Martin. Why? Edward C. Aldridge Jr., the US Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, who informed the world of the tender results, emphasized that both machines met the basic technical requirements. One of the most important factors that influenced the decision were financial issues, that is, i.a., the producer’s guarantees as to the price of finished, serial models in particular variants.
Experts in the field, however, say that Lockheed Martin’s X-35 won also because of the technical aspects that directly influenced the aircraft’s operational capabilities. It was to have better stealth parameters than its competitor, i.e. a lower radar cross-section (RCS). It also had bigger payload (it could take more armament), and it was equipped with more advanced network-centric command support systems, which enabled it, for instance, to support forces operating on water or land – and this aspect was crucial to the US Army and the US Navy.
After the Pentagon had announced the winner, Great Britain and Canada, the partners of the program, were joined by other countries – Denmark, Norway, Italy, Turkey, Australia and the Netherlands. They did not, however, get the same rights as the UK, which was (and still is) the only “level-one” partner with its contribution of USD 2 billion. The “level-two” status was obtained only by two states – Italy (with a contribution of USD 1 billion), and the Netherlands (about USD 800 million), and “level-three” partners included Turkey, Australia, Norway, Denmark and Canada. The given amounts are just approximates, since Turkey’s share in JSF was officially USD 175 million, and in his recent statements the Turkish president threatened to withdraw from acquiring F-35 and demand reimbursement of a billion dollars of Turkey’s own input.
What are the benefits for the JSF partner states? In short, involvement in its production. The bigger the contribution, the more extensive the participation. British companies, for instance, produce 15 % of the aircraft’s components, such as the rear part of the fuselage, the fuelling system, propulsion for the F-35B variant, the rescue system. They will also be responsible for integrating British armament.
From Plans to Facts
The demonstrator F-35 in the A variant (CTOL) was first presented to the public in February 2006. Six months later, the aircraft was given a distinguishing name – Lightning II. The machine is 15.67-m long, 4.38-m high, has a wing span of 10.67 m (and wing surface of 42.70 m²), and is equipped with the AESA AN/APG-81 radar, the AN/AAQ-37 Electro-optical Distributed Aperture System (DAS) for missile and aircraft detection (all subassemblies produced by Northrop Grumman), avionics and the AN/AAQ-40 targeting system by Lockheed Martin, as well as the AN/ASQ-239 Barracuda electronic warfare system produced by Bae System. The F-35B (STOVL version), was presented two years later, in 2008, and the carrier-based model (F-35C) in 2010. The breakthrough moment, i.e. introducing the first F-35A aircraft into service in the US Air Force, came on July 14, 2011. A year later, the first serial F-35B entered service, but not in the US Marine Corps, but in the British Armed Forces. The last crucial moment of the F-35 program was the transfer of the first carrier-based F-35C machine to the US Navy in 2013.
Up to now, 400 F-35 aircraft (in the three variants) have been produced. The machines serve in the armies of the USA, the United Kingdom, Australia, Italy, Japan, Israel, the Netherlands, Turkey, Norway and Korea.
autor zdjęć: Christine Groening / USAF