When Lockheed Martin Won The JSF Award (2001)


During its nearly 100 years of coverage, Aviation Week & Space Technology has covered many controversial programs. Perhaps none has been as big in terms of sheer value and global reach as the nine-nation, stealthy F-35 fighter project.

In its Oct. 29, 2001, cover story, Aviation Week’s esteemed Pentagon team (and my predecessors), Robert Wall and Dave Fulghum highlight the weight of Lockheed Martin’s dominance as a result of the winner-take-all program. At the time, the question was whether the losing team led by Boeing would get a piece of what was then described as a $200 billion project.

Aviation Week delayed printing of the magazine to ensure we got the story in. And, we dummied up two covers – one for Boeing and one for Lockheed.

In the first of many pieces to come about what was then called the Joint Strike Fighter development contract, Wall and Fulghum have a couple of famous words in quotes from the Lockheed F-35 manager at the time, Tom Burbage. The $19 billion development contract would proceed under a “very aggressive schedule,” he said. This is perhaps the understatement of the decade – or two. Now, the kindest of onlookers say the schedule was unrealistic. Pentagon procurement chief Frank Kendall has said signing the deal was “acquisition malpractice.”

This schedule called for F-35A and F-35B fielding for the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps in 2008 with the U.S. Navy and its F-35C following in 2010. The Marines are now shooting for initial operational capability this summer – seven years later than planned. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh is adamant that his service will declare IOC by Decemer 2016, eight years later. And, the U.S. Navy – which has been lukewarm at best on the project as it continues to push for more F/A-18E/F’s from Boeing – is eyeing IOC by February 2019, nine years off plan.

Fast forward nearly 13.5 years to today, and the program’s cost is estimated to have doubled to $400 billion. And, the single-engine, stealthy fighter has yet to leave U.S. soil for its international debut.

The development program has more than doubled in cost from the $19 billion figure cited when Lockheed Martin won the contract.

From an industry angle, the ramifications of the decision are still being felt, and more will come. Boeing hasn’t a speck of work on the jet, and the company is fighting hard to keep its F-15 and F/A-18E/F lines in St. Louis open. At the time, Boeing Chairman Phil Condit cited other work – such as robust interest in the C-17 cargo carrier -- as key for the company’s future military business. But, that line in Long Beach, California, is in the process of shutting down and with little work beyond the next couple of years for its fighter business in Saint Louis, the shape of this impact on the losing bidder has yet to fully be felt.

At the time, Pentagon officials planned for an “alternate” engine approach – developing propulsion systems from both Pratt & Whitney and General Electric that could be interchangeable on the jet. This was to ensure that a propulsion program couldn’t ground the preponderance of the fighter fleet operated by the U.S. and its top eight allies. As the aircraft’s cost spiked, interest in a second engine tanked. It came down to funding, but the Pentagon abandoned plans for the GE F136 and today Pratt & Whitney’s F135 enjoys the position as the sole power plant for what could prove to be the largest military program in history.

Likewise, Northrop Grumman clinched work on the F-35 radar, a cousin to the radar used on the stealthy F-22, also built by Lockheed Martin. This left Raytheon with its focus on legacy products, including the F-15 and F/A-18E/F. However, Raytheon’s large-face radar business has thrived with success in the AN/TPY-2 missile defense system and the next-generation air and missile defense sensor on Navy Aegis ships.

The selection of Lockheed was hardly a surprise. General officers in the Air Force were not too shy about their distaste for Boeing’s design. One two-star famously declared the Boeing option just too ugly to be in the Air Force fleet. And, the company struggled to match the performance of the lift-fan feature used by Lockheed Martin for the short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing Harrier replacement requirement. 

Today, the program is largely considered too big to fail. Along with the nine partner nations, Lockheed has buy in from Japan, Israel and South Korea. And, the jet isn’t even operational. Yet, it has also become the poster child for how not to craft a program because of its unrealistic cost and requirements expectations, which set it up for more than a decade of missed milestones.

Under the leadership, however, of USAF Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan – notorious for his unedited candor, which makes contractors quake in their boots – many onlookers think the project is on the best trajectory it has had. Be sure in 50 years log onto our web site – or whatever medium we are using – to see whether this recent optimism turned into reality.

► Read the October 29, 2001 cover story: Lockheed Martin Strikes Out Boeing

► Aviation Week is approaching its 100th anniversary in 2016. In a series of blogs, our editors highlight editorial content from the magazine's long and rich history, including viewpoints from the industry's most iconic names and stories that have helped change the shape of the industry.

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