Why the X-32 Never Made It to Fruition: Sometimes rivalry produces a better airplane. Boeing and Lockheed Martin battled down to the wire in a grudge match for the right to supply the Joint Strike Fighter program with a next-generation warplane. Boeing had the X-32 and Lockheed pushed forward with the X-35. The X-35 ultimately won the competition that became the F-35. Let’s revisit this contest from the 1990s and examine if the U.S. Air Force made the right choice.
Joint Strike Fighter Program Was Challenging
The Joint Strike Fighter needed to carry a big weapons payload and have the ability for short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL), carrier landing, and regular take-offs.
So, the Joint Strike Fighter program wanted the fighter to serve the Air Force, Marines Corps, and Navy. Boeing and Lockheed Martin also looked forward to export sales if they won the contract.
Was the X-32 Too Ugly?
The first thing you notice in photos of the original X-32 is that the pilot sat right over the nose. This was a different look that evaluators had to get used to. Some analysts thought it was even ugly.
The X-32 also originally had a delta wing with a shortened nose, which made it look unique.
Due to a changing Navy requirement, Boeing decided to amend the design and produced a mock-up with a nose that could house a radar, which pushed the cockpit back, along with adding a conventional wing shape. This re-design would play a factor in the outcome of the competition.
Two Prototypes Were Not a Good Idea
Another fateful decision was that Boeing came up with two prototypes and Lockheed Martin had only one. One X-32A could do conventional take-offs and landings while the X-32B was for STOVL. Lockheed’s one model could accomplish all the various take-off and landing missions.
Test-flying in 2000 and 2001 with 66 flights, the Boeing prototypes could reach MACH 1.6 with a Pratt & Whitney turbofan engine that pushed out 28,000 pounds of thrust. This enabled a range of at least 691 miles since the Boeing models could refuel in air.
The X-32s had side weapons bays that could deploy six air-to-air missiles or two missiles and two bombs.
But the X-35 could refuel in the air too. It weighed less than the X-32s and had a greater range. The X-35 also had a shaft-driven turbofan lift.
One Demonstrator Is Better Than Two
The Lockheed entrant was just one demonstrator that could handle a truly joint role – one for three service branches. With the changed wing design for the X-32, it was likely there would be a delay in building a new demonstrator. If Boeing had it to do over again, it probably would have opted for producing just one prototype.
Also, it was risky going with the delta wing, even though it was difficult to predict that the navy would call for a design change in the middle of testing. Since Lockheed proved its proficiency with one model that could do it all and was ready to go without design changes, it appears that the Department of Defense made the best choice.
Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, Ph.D., is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.