Three titans of the American defense industry are vying for what could be history's biggest military contract and dominance of the world market for fighter aircraft in the 21st century.
The Pentagon will narrow the field later this month, when it picks two of the rivals to build prototypes that will compete to be the sole replacement for five different aircraft flown by the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. The loser will be out of the running for a deal in which thousands of jobs, from Washington State to St. Louis to Maryland, are at stake.
The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is the only program of its kind authorized for the foreseeable future and the first in which a single low-cost combat plane is to be made for all the services. If fully funded by Congress, an unprecedented 3,000 JSFs could be built between 2005 and 2016 for about $300 billion. Some estimates say that with export sales, the contract could ultimately be worth $750 billion. With the high-end F-22 prohibitively expensive and scheduled to be in production only until 2010, the JSF builder could become the premier US fighter maker and corner the global market with the most advanced and affordable warplane in its class.
"This is the only game in town from the fighter prospective," says Brett Lambert, a defense analyst with DFI International, a Washington research group. "This will decide who is making fighter aircraft well into the middle of the next century."
The outcome will have other far-reaching political and economic consequences. Thousands of skilled employees at the losing contractors could suddenly be looking for work in a further post-cold-war shrinkage of the US defense industrial base, which has already lost 1.5 million positions in a succession of corporate mergers, acquisitions, downsizings, and closures.
For the military, the JSF program's success would herald no less than a revolution in the design and construction of advanced, cost-effective combat aircraft, something that has long eluded the Pentagon.
But a failure, wrought by either technical problems, funding cuts, or other causes, would be profound. First, the long-delayed military modernization plans that the top brass desperately wants to implement could be derailed. Furthermore, the Pentagon may examine more closely questions about the future of conventional airpower, given the advances in precision weapons and pilotless aircraft, looming budget shortfalls, the absence of a major rival to the US, and global proliferation of missiles and other high-tech hardware.
"The Joint Strike Fighter represents the convergence of three very important trends. The first is declining resources. The second is industry consolidation and the third is shared missions among the services," says Loren Thompson, a defense expert at the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, in Alexandria, Va. "If it fails, everybody loses."
The competition for the JSF pits the world's biggest commercial aircraft maker, Boeing Company, against defense giant Lockheed-Martin Corp., and St. Louis-based aircraft producer McDonnell-Douglas Corp., which is teamed with British Aerospace Ltd. and Northrop-Grumman Corp.
The rivalry is underscored by a high-profile public relations battle the three are waging in the national media. Multipage spreads, replete with renderings of the competing designs, assert how each contractor's proposal best fits the unprecedented requirements set for the JSF.
In the halcyon days of cold-war defense spending, each service issued exacting specifications for aircraft tailored to its individual mission. In this new era of frugality, the Pentagon is seeking to maximize its dollars by building a single-engine, single-seat aircraft to replace the Air Force's F-16s and A-10s, the Navy's A-6Es, and the Marine Corps' Harrier "jump jets" and F-18 E/Fs.
In seeking bids for the JSF, the Pentagon set broad design and performance parameters, but left it up to the contractors to develop their own solutions.
The JSF should be able to perform as a dog-fighter or bomber, and incorporate radar-evading "stealth" technology. It should cost no more than $40 million per copy, compared with $158 million for the F-22. The Navy version will have to be heavier for carrier landings; the Marine Corps model, which Britain's Royal Navy also wants, must take off and land vertically.
Compatibility is Job 1
Most critically, the three JSF versions should have about 80 percent compatibility: that is, 80 percent of each should comprise the same parts, be built with 80 percent of the same tools, and be made in the same plant.
As the Nov. 18 "down-select" approaches, speculation is raging within the aerospace industry and among analysts over which two companies will be chosen to proceed to prototypes of their entries.
Lockheed-Martin's design is regarded as the most "low risk." The Bethesda, Md.-based company has a long record in the fighter business. Its entry, a slope-sided aircraft with canted tails, is based on proven technologies and designs it is incorporating in the F-22, offering the advantage of keeping unforeseen costs down. The firm has also extensively tested a vertical takeoff and landing system and other components.
Several factors could weigh against Lockheed-Martin, analysts say. Should it win the contract, the aerospace behemoth would become even bigger, vastly reducing competition in the defense business. Many members of Congress and military officials want to keep the defense industrial base as broad as possible.
The Boeing entry is the most radical. The design, which stresses simplicity through the use of modular construction, comprises a single delta-winged aircraft with an adjustable air intake in the nose. It would be built of light-weight radar-absorbing materials developed through the firm's work on the B-2 "Stealth" bomber. The Marine Corps version would divert power from the main engine for vertical takeoffs and landings.
Boeing, based in Seattle, has never built a fighter aircraft, a factor that could count against it, analysts say. In addition, with its world-leading commercial aircraft arm and other businesses, Boeing would be the least hurt financially should it be cut from the competition.
Look Mom, no tail
The McDonnell-Douglas design is notable for the near-absence of tails, giving it potentially a greater "stealth" ability than its competitors. A separate mid-fuselage engine would supply vertical takeoff and landing power in the Marine Corps version. The partnership with British Aerospace and Northrop-Grumman, which together produce the Harrier, is seen as a plus as is its experience in building the carrier-based F-18.
But the McDonnell-Douglas team could be hurt by a delay in submitting its design, which robbed it of time for crucial testing that its competitors were able to perform, analysts say. Furthermore, they say, the company has not won a fighter design competition in more than 20 years and could have a hard time selling the Pentagon on a JSF that has two engines and almost no tails.
Bill Sweetman, a contributing editor to Popular Science magazine who has followed the JSF program since its inception, says he believes McDonnell-Douglas stands the best chance of being cut out. He says the Boeing entry's radical design makes it the most daring and intriguing, while the Lockheed-Martin proposal is the least risky because of its reliance on proven F-22 technologies.