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By Arnold Lewis and Michael Durao
Febuary 28, 2011

In recent years, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) has become one of the most infamous weapons programs in the Department of Defense’s history. The money-guzzling $1 trillion dollar (Associated Press) black hole was designed to be the DoD’s crowning jewel, but now it holds the prestigious title of the department’s largest flop in the minds of many analysts. Its downfall echoes those of previous common fighter programs, ranging from the notorious Tactical Fighter Experimental (TFX) to Congress’s failed attempt to standardize the Lightweight Fighter (LWF). This begs the question of whether or not a common fighter is feasible. The answer is yes, but the TFX and JSF went about doing so backwards. One can understand the fundamental flaws in these programs by examining the differences between the successful and failed programs.

Beginning in the 1960s, newly-appointed Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and his Whiz Kids harbored a deep obsession with the concept of a common fighter. The common fighter would be flown by not only the USAF, but the USN, USMC, and NATO allies as well. Fighter planes being extremely costly R&D investments, development, acquisition, and operation cost of aircraft with cross-service commonality have the potential to plummet as a result of their shared assets (Global Security); such unprecedented efficiency in an aerospace project essentially made a common fighter the DoD’s Holy Grail throughout the Vietnam War era.

The idea was sound, but its execution was fundamentally flawed. Conceptualization of a common fighter resulted in the TFX project that produced the F-111 Aardvark. The resulting F-111A for the Air Force was an exceptional interdiction and strike platform.  Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the F-111B carrierborne interceptor.

Although earlier studies conducted by the Whiz Kids concluded that common airframes should be developed for the Air Force and then adapted for the Navy (Gunston), this was shown not to be the case by historical precedent.  The F-4 Phantom II that had entered service years prior and matured into an outstanding airframe over the course of the Vietnam War began its development exclusively as a Mach 2 interceptor meant to defend USN carriers from Soviet bombers and anti-ship missiles. The craft was also acquired by the USMC and USAF, however, and its widespread use forced it to take on multimission capabilities.  Luckily, despite some initial shortcomings such as its lack of an internal cannon, the F-4 underwent revisions for each service and became capable in strike, SEAD, reconnaissance, and air superiority roles.

Another airframe that defied these earlier studies was the A-7 Corsair II, the product of the US Navy’s VAL (Heavier-than-air, Attack, Light) competition. Designed as a subsonic attack aircraft, its design ran counter to the Air Force’s doctrine of supersonic fighter-bombers such as the F-100 Super Sabre and the F-105 Thunderchief. With McNamara’s urging, the Air Force adopted an upgraded version of the attacker, known as the A-7D. The conversion was so successful that the Navy upgraded their A-7s accordingly, creating the A-7E variant The aircraft continued to mature throughout its operational lifetime, being used from Vietnam until Desert Storm as a very successful attack and close support aircraft not only in both services, but in the service of other nations as well.

The F-111, however, was not a similarly versatile airframe, and when the large plane had its structure reinforced for CATOBAR operations it was too heavy and underpowered (Baugher).  After being called to testify before the Armed Services Committee, Vice Admiral Tom Connolly said the following to Senator John Stennis: “Mr. Chairman, all the thrust in Christendom couldn’t make a Navy fighter out of that airplane.” Although it ended his career, his profound statement drove the final nail into the coffin  of the F-111B (Parsons 10). The demise of the TFX did lead to the development of the F-14, which showed its worth when operating from airbases rather than carriers during the Iran-Iraq War. However, Congress’s dream of a common fighter remained.

In 1965 the Air Force conceived of what would become the Lightweight Fighter (LWF) program. Originally a “low-tier” compliment to their F-15, the design requirements for their Lightweight Fighter were simple: a small, low-drag, low-weight, pure fighter adhering to Energy-Maneuverability theory.  After the prototypes were chosen – the YF-16 and the YF-17 – the LWF program was merged with the Navy’s VFAX program.  Civilian overseers again wanted a common fighter for both services.  After the Air Force opted to acquire F-16s, the Navy found itself unimpressed with the fragile, single-engine craft for carrier operations and instead chose to acquire the F/A-18, a development of the YF-17 that lost the Air Force contract.  In the years since the LWF and VFAX programs, despite no interservice commonality (aside from a handful of Navy F-16Ns acquired as dedicated aggressors), both the F-16 and F/A-18 became some of the most successful multirole fighters of the 4th generation.

After the LWF reinforced the unique needs of the Air Force and Navy, DARPA partnered with the British Ministry of Defense in the 1980s to study the feasibility of a supersonic vertical takeoff and landing aircraft. The program was called ASTOVL – Advanced Short Take Off/Vertical Landing – and was initially intended as a replacement for the Harriers in service with the Fleet Air Arm, RAF, and USMC.  After discovering that such an aircraft equipped with the then-in-development Pratt & Whitney F119 engine could reach supersonic speeds, DARPA approached Lockheed Martin’s (LM) Skunk Works to design such an aircraft.  LM’s work with the concept resulted in the STOVL Strike Fighter (SSF) while DARPA progressed the overall ASTOVL program into phase two.  The SSF’s development team, however, recognized that removing their design’s lift fan would allow for the inclusion of an extra fuel tank.  With this design revision, LM marketed the CTOL variant to the USN and USAF, and the scope of the ASTOVL program was expanded to include this interservice commonality.  It became the Common Affordable Lightweight Fighter program; meanwhile, the Navy’s A-X concept that produced the failed A-12 stealthy carrierborne attacker was transformed into the Joint Affordable Strike Technology program, and subsequently both programs were merged into the now-infamous Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), a politically and economically appealing concept for a 5th generation, low-tier common fighter (Global Security).

The JSF program has become a complete debacle in recent years, coming under fire from a diverse array of critics for a variety of shortcomings and an inefficient acquisition process.  Major Richard Koch, an Air Combat Command tactician, publicly stated in 2008, “I wake up in a cold sweat at the thought of the F-35 going in with only two air-dominance weapons,” referencing the aircraft’s small air-to-air weapons load (Sweetman).  In recent memory, the F-35B – the STOVL variant of the project for the USMC and most prone to problems and delays – was placed on two-year probation by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates after a long series of delays caused by its shaft-driven lift fan (Department of Defense).  The conventional knowledge generated by the consistent failures and mediocrity of the JSF is that the common fighter will remain an unattainable goal.

This raises the question of whether aircraft such as the F-4 Phantom II and A-7 Corsair II were mere flukes, just exceptions to the general rule.  Is the common fighter really an unattainable pipe dream for politicians, defense contractors, and military brass alike, or is there more to the problem?  One needs to not look further than the origins of the F-4 and the A-7. Both aircraft were originally designed for the Navy and engineered to fit the stringent requirements of CATOBAR operations before being adapted for land-based operations. If one takes a look at the failed common fighter experiments, they shared one of two qualities: either they were developed for the Air Force’s land-based mission before being converted for carrier operations, or they were joint, simultaneous development projects for both departments. As Dr. Richard Hallion states:

“… it is possible to take an aircraft intended for shipboard service and modify it successfully for operation from land. However, it is extremely difficult to take a land-based aircraft and modify it for operation from a ship without undertaking extensive revision and redesign of the airplane.”

The failure of so many defense contractors to heed this basic commandment is the reason why so many common fighter programs have failed time and time again.

Michael Durao is an Beowulf Associate who's analytical expertise is focused on aerospace platforms.  His particular concentration lies in the analysis of the capabilities and proliferation of Eastern air defense and air-to-air systems, defense acquisition reform, and the evolving paradigms of 21st Century warfighting.

Arnold Lewis is the Content Editor for ENGAGED Magazine and his interests currently lie with International Politics & Security. Currently, he resides in Boulder, Colorado.
Works Cited
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Garamone, Jim. "Gates Reveals Budget Efficiencies, Reinvestment Possibilities." American Forces Press Service.
     06 Jan 2011: n. pag. Web. 22 Feb 2011. <http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=62351>.

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Hallion, Richard “A Troubling Past: Air Force Fighter Acquisition since 1945.” Airpower Journal, Winter 1990. n. pag. Web.
     23 Feb 2011. <http://www.airpower.maxwell.af.mil/airchronicles/apj/apj90/win90/1win90.htm>

“Joint Advanced Strike Technology (JAST).” Global Security.org. Web.
     <http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/aircraft/jast.htm>

Sweetman, Bill. "JSF Leaders Back In The Fight."Ares: A Defense Technology Blog. Aviation Week, 22 Sep 2008.
     Web. 22 Feb 2011.
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