The Ultimate Fighter?

With the F-35, Lockheed Martin takes a turn trying to make one combat plane that can do everything.

(Andy Wolfe/Lockheed Martin)
Air & Space Magazine

In 1983, an aerospace industry superstar facetiously envisioned where the inexorably climbing cost of building fighter airplanes was leading—to what in a sense would be the ultimate fighter.

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“In the year 2054,” Norman R. Augustine wrote in his book Augustine’s Laws, “the entire defense budget will purchase just one aircraft. This aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy 3 1/2 days each week, except for leap year, when it will be made available to the Marines for the extra day.”

Today, on a mile-long assembly line in a factory just west of Fort Worth, Texas, the company Augustine ran as chairman and chief executive before he retired in 1996, Lockheed Martin Corporation, is producing an ultimate fighter of a different sort. In just a few more years, and continuing well past 2054, not only the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marines but also the militaries of 10 U.S. allies will fly the new F-35 Lightning II, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter. But they won’t have to share just one. Over the next quarter-century, Lockheed and its subcontractors, which span the globe, anticipate building 3,000 or more F-35s—in three different versions.

All three F-35 variants are built for the same primary mission: dropping bombs on or firing missiles at ground targets, especially those so well-defended it takes a radar-evading stealth aircraft to get at them. By virtue of its stealth—and its supersonic speed and staggering computer power—the Lightning II has earned the classification “fifth-generation fighter.” F-35A, B, and C employ the latest in stealth technology, from the slab-sided shape of their bodies to the canted vertical tails to the new type of low-observable coating that covers areas of their skins. Designers cloaked the airplanes’ engines with radar beam-swallowing inlets and buried antennas in the edges of tails and wings. Because of these features and because weapons are ordinarily carried in internal bays, the F-35s appear on radar screens as transient specks. All three carry an identical suite of “mission systems,” including sophisticated radar and infrared video cameras, laser targeting systems to guide weapons, and laser data links for silently sharing imagery and information with other airplanes and ground forces.

Lockheed estimates that when the program reaches peak production, each airplane will cost $65 million; when all research, development, and testing costs are added in, the figure rises to $156 million, according to a 2011 estimate by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. When the contract was awarded in the early 1990s, Pentagon leaders had hoped that by merging multiple fighter projects into a single huge one, they could use mass production to get U.S. services and allies the most advanced strike jet possible for a price that, if far from inexpensive, was at least affordable.

“We’re going to save money in production because Henry Ford had it right,” promises engineer Larry Lawson, executive vice president and, until a recent promotion, general manager for the F-35 program at Lockheed Fort Worth. “The cost is tied to the numbers that you build.”

Operating jet fighters can never be called “cheap,” but with multiple allies flying the same aircraft, and thus able to share facilities and equipment, the cost of operating the F-35 would be cheaper than operating the various “legacy” aircraft, such as the F-16s and AV-8B Harriers, that the new fighter is intended to replace. “We all show up tomorrow with the same kit,” says Lieutenant General André Deschamps, chief of Canada’s air staff, “the same software, same everything. The procedures are the same, the training’s the same. You don’t need to bring all the equipment. We can quickly come together with fewer platforms and have a far greater effect.”

The cornerstone concept of the F-35 program—that an airplane can cost a lot less to build and operate if it’s made for multiple customers and in larger numbers—has been around at least since the 1960s. It’s also enjoyed little success. In the Kennedy administration, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara failed to make the Air Force and Navy jointly buy the F-111 Aardvark, a swing-wing jet primarily designed to carry nuclear bombs past Soviet air defenses at low altitude and supersonic speed. In the 1970s, the same services again resisted pressure to develop a common fighter. The Air Force bought the F-16 Fighting Falcon; the Navy, the F/A-18 Hornet. The Marine Corps, whose budget falls under the Department of the Navy, bought Hornets too, but also insisted on purchasing the near-experimental AV-8A Harrier, whose ability to take off and land vertically seduced Marine leaders. In short, joint aircraft programs have largely failed because each branch of the military has its own priorities and culture. (The exception that proves the rule, the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II, was not jointly developed by all U.S. flying services, but served with all—as well as with the air forces of 16 other nations.)

In the early 1990s, though, after years of careful study, Pentagon leaders decided to try a joint program once more, but with a twist. The result, after a competition that lasted seven years and left Lockheed the only U.S. defense contractor still making fighters, is essentially fraternal triplets—three aircraft that look much the same and have enough common or similar parts and equipment to be built on the same production line and share the designation “F-35,” yet differ enough to suit the varying needs of the Air Force, Navy, Marines, and allies.

Creating the ultimate multi-mission aircraft is not the only audacious goal of the F-35 program. Lockheed Martin and engine designer Pratt & Whitney are also introducing a propulsion system that gives the B model the ability to take off within far less than the 800-foot length of an amphibious assault ship’s flight deck and hover above it before landing vertically—the feature the Marine Corps most wants. Dozens of schemes to make aircraft capable of short takeoff and vertical landing have been tried and failed; they populate a colorful STOVL diagram, “The Wheel of Misfortune” ( The Harrier, for instance, uses four thrust- vectoring nozzles to aim its jet engine’s exhaust down for vertical flight. The F-35B relies on a new and ingenious mechanism called a lift fan, patented by Lockheed engineer Paul Belivaqua, that offers major advantages.

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