Why the Boeing X-32 Stealth Fighter failed: You know it as the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. But there was a competition to fill this slot and Boeing entered a fighter to win it. This airplane was called the X-32, a technology demonstrator that had its own charms and advantages. It went against Lockheed Martin to see which defense contractor could provide conventional and vertical take-off and landing and come in under budget. DARPA was involved so the airplanes needed to have the most innovative characteristics to take home the prize.
Here’s the story of why the Boeing X-32 lost to what we know today as the F-35:
Joint Strike Fighter Program Envisioned Wide-Ranging Capabilities
The X-32 was part of the Joint Strike Fighter program that began in 1994. This required a stealth fighter that could serve the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps for conventional take-off and landing, vertical takeoff and landing, and landing and take-off on a carrier.
By 1996, the Department of Defense and DARPA had narrowed the contest down to entrants from Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Boeing named its version the X-32 and it had the best stealth characteristics that the defense contractor could muster.
X-32 Had Unique Contours
The design of the X-32 stood out. The cockpit was placed at the front in a fashion that created a short nose. The wings were delta-shaped with vertical tail-wings that canted outward. The air intake was under the cockpit, and this created the warplane’s unique shape.
Should Boeing Have Decided on Two Demonstrators?
Boeing decided to build two prototypes – the X-32A and the X-32B. In 2000, the X-32A went on its first flight in a conventional take-off and later did 65-additional flights. It demonstrated the ability to refuel in the air, maneuver at supersonic speeds, and show off its internal weapons bays. The X-32B went on its maiden flight the next year and flew 80-times in just four months. The X-32B was able to make vertical take-offs and landings. The Pratt & Whitney engine produced a top speed of MACH 1.6 and a range of 978-miles.
The Navy Wasn’t Happy
Then the Navy fought for design changes to the two prototypes. Boeing engineers and designers reluctantly complied and got to work. The delta-wing was changed and in its place was a more swept-wing look. The intake inlet was smaller in an alteration that allowed for more stealth. The nose now had a radar. This was different than what Boeing originally proposed while Lockheed Martin kept their design close to the first proposal.
Should Boeing Have Stuck to the Original Design?
X-32 test pilot Phillip “Rowdy” Yates is a former Naval aviator who had served as the F-14 Tomcat weapons test pilot at Naval Air Station Patuxent River. Yates revealed details of his X-32 test flights in a YouTube profile by NOVA shared by TheDrive.com.
“In the analytical process that Boeing undertook to decide what the final design would be, they actually changed horses mid-stream and said ‘ok, we’re going to go with a more conventional, little bit of a delta-wing, but it also would have a conventional tail, as well.’
Re-design Was Going to Take Time
Prototypes and changes during the test But this re-design were going to cause a delay while the X-35 from Lockheed was on schedule. The two-phase of the program likely cost Boeing in the selection criteria. The single entrant from Lockheed was considered a more efficient use of resources.
The X-32 Ugly Bird
There was also aesthetics involved with many observers noting that the Boeing airplane was just plain ugly. Yates added that the “X-35 looked more like a fighter than the X-32.”
In the end, the Pentagon chose the X-35 that went on to become the F-35 Lightning II. If it had the chance to do it over again, Boeing would have probably decided to just build one prototype instead of two and embark on a more traditional design that looked better. That way the X-32 wouldn’t have made it on the “ugliest airplane lists.”
Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, 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.