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  • Fifteen Years Ago...
    Posted by Bill Sweetman 1:47 PM on Nov 16, 2011

    Following the tenth anniversary of the start of the Joint Strike Fighter system development and demonstration program, and the 25-year-mark for the start of the Advanced Tactical Fighter project, today marks 15 years of serious money for JSF. On November* 16, 1996, the Pentagon picked Lockheed Martin and Boeing for the concept demonstration phase of the JSF program, eliminating McDonnell Douglas.

    Not many such decisions truly make history, but this one did. For McDonnell Douglas, the shock of being beaten by Boeing -- which had never built a manned supersonic aircraft, and whose last production fighter program had started under the Hoover administration -- proved terminal. CEO Harry Stonecipher had already concluded that the company's airliner business was among the walking dead.

    A month after the JSF announcement, Stonecipher and Boeing CEO Phil Condit shook hands on a merger deal. There followed an interesting era at Boeing, where the GE-trained, Jack Welch-disciple Stonecipher discovered a collapsing production control system that (almost literally) nobody in the company understood. The shy, retiring Stonecipher, appointed president of the merged company, waded in and started kicking face.

    Boeing Commercial's initial reaction (which I summed up at the time as "You're not my real mommy, and I don't have to do anything you say") proved ineffective. After a few summary executions, Stonecipher set the company on the global, cost-driven path that led to the 787.

    I was not that surprised by the 1996 downselect. Boeing's design clearly involved risk, with an extraordinary inlet and unusual aerodynamic configuration based on a deep delta wing (which was also an enormous fuel tank). However, previous two-candidate selections, back to YF-16/YF-17, had tended to pick one candidate that looked safe and another that promised different benefits at a higher risk level.

    Macs had put together a dream team with BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman -- thereby corralling all the UK-US expertise in STOVL and carrier fighters -- but had done it late in the game, making it hard to deliver a mature proposal. The final design had a shallow v-tail, a body profile a bit like the tailless canard X-36, and a 3D vectoring nozzle.

    blog post photo

    The real problem was that it used a STOVL system -- lift plus lift-cruise, with a separate lift engine -- that the customer had openly said that it disliked. "The care and feeding of one engine is bad enough", remarked Bill Scheuren -- the former Marine Harrier pilot who had started the DARPA ASTOVL effort from which JSF emerged -- in an early-90s interview.

    Another factor was that the DARPA program started by ruling out LPLC -- not because it would not work, but because it had been done before (notably by the Yak-141) and was therefore not "DARPA-hard". That, unfortunately, left the program office with the impression that LPLC was old hat, an idea tried and discarded.

    Trouble was, the customer's aversion to LPLC wasn't completely logical. Yes, LPLC was an extra engine, but a very simple one. And it eliminated the driveshaft, gears and clutch, and the oversized LP turbine on the main engine. Macs' demonstrator would have had a stock F119.

    How about weight? The Rolls-Royce lift fan proposed for the Macs JSF was intended to produce 16,000 pounds of thrust and had a design T/W ratio of 15:1. The main engine would have weighed less (by as much as 2,000 pounds) than either the Boeing or LockMart concepts. Even if the lift-cruise nozzle weighed about the same, would the entire system have equaled the 10,300 pounds of the F-35B propulsion system?

    The idea that the Pentagon, 15 years ago today, tossed out the lowest-risk, best-performing approach to JSF is depressing but, sadly, not wholly unrealistic. 

    But if you really want to be depressed, read the full transcript, and what everyone was saying about costs.

    * date corrected

    Tags: ar99, tacair, jsf

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