The F-35 Lightning II is gradually becoming a centerpiece of the U.S. Armed Forces – and the forces of its allies. But before the F-35 entered production and proliferated, it had to win its place in a head-to-head competition with another fighter concept: the Boeing X-32.
In the 1990s, the U.S. spearheaded a monumental contract competition – the Joint Strike Fighter, or JSF. The JSF stood apart from the fighter contracts that had been issued continuously for decades. It marked a drastic shift in the structuring of U.S. air power.
X-32: One Jet to Rule Them All
Throughout the Cold War, airframes were designed to do one thing and do it well. For example, the A-10 was built to provide close air support. Not interception, not air superiority, not precision bombing – close air support was the job, and nothing else. Naturally, the A-10 has proven to be an exceptional provider of close air support. Similar examples abound. The F-15 was built “without a pound for air-to-ground” as a pure air superiority fighter. The F-104, crafted in the shape of a rocket, was built to intercept enemy fighters. The A-6 was built to drop bombs.
While airframes designed to perform a single purpose performed that purpose quite well, this format was expensive. It was complicated. The logistics were a pain in the butt. U.S. forces wanted something simpler, something streamlined, something that would allow for a more efficient force structure. The JSF was the culmination of that desire. The competition was meant to find a jet that could do everything adequately. One jet would be a jack of all trades, and this would simplify procurement, training, and maintenance.
The JSF wasn’t only conceived to streamline the U.S. force structure, but to streamline the force structure of the entire network of U.S. allies. The JSF’s end product would serve in the UK, Italy, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Denmark, Germany, Norway, Japan, and Singapore. All would use the same JSF, which would allow the allies to sync up and would improve network connectivity.
Four proposals were submitted to the JSF. Two were chosen for prototype testing. Only one would win the JSF contract, which was to be especially lucrative. The first airframe was of course the F-35’s ancestor, the prototype Lockheed X-35 (see our original pictures below). The second airframe was the JSF’s loser, the Boeing X-32, which has faded into obscurity and is remembered, more than anything else, for the jet’s ugly appearance.
Visually speaking, the highlight of the X-32 was its unusual engine intake, which sat centered below the jet’s nose. The engine intake was oddly shaped, gaping and angular. The fuselage was not much more attractive – it featured a bloated aesthetic, one that sagged beneath a delta wing configuration. Granted, Boeing’s primary objective when designing the X-32 was not to create an attractive airplane. Still, the X-32 rolled off the assembly line as a uniquely ugly bird.
In an effort to win the JSF contract, Boeing emphasized the X-32’s low manufacturing and lifecycle costs. Accordingly, Boeing built the X-32 around a large, one-piece carbon-fiber delta wing that would work as the foundation of multiple X-32 variants. The company also created a simple direct-lift thrust vectoring system for the X-32, which could be easily swapped out for Short Take Off and Vertical Landing-enabling thrust vectoring nozzles. Boeing’s cost-streaming approach, in fact, was consistent with the ideology that motivated the JSF.
The X-32’s flight tests were not particularly streamlined, however. A team of mechanics had to reconfigure the aircraft between STOVL and supersonic modes, in between tests, on the ground. Lockheed’s entry, on the other hand, could reconfigure between STOVL and supersonic modes mid-flight. Not surprisingly, the JSF evaluators favored the X-35. As a result, the X-32 was passed over, never to be produced. Only two X-32s were ever built.
You can find one at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, and the other at the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken.