JSF Sets the Standard for Aircraft Acquisition

By Vice Admiral Jerry Miller, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Lockheed Martin completed the concept demonstration phase and was awarded a contract for development. There are three variants of the JSF: one for the Air Force, one for Navy aircraft carriers, and one for the Marine Corps/United Kingdom that incorporates a short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) capability. There is impressive commonality, a strict requirement of the Department of Defense (DoD) managing authority. Lockheed Martin built two prototype aircraft, one, the X-35A, to demonstrate compliance with Air Force conventional take-off and landing requirements. This aircraft was designed so it could be modified to meet the U.S. and U.K. STOVL requirements, resulting in the X-35B. The X-35C was built to fulfill the Navy requirement to operate from carriers.

The clue for the value of any aircraft is the reaction of the test pilots who fly the experimental models. In the case of the ill-fated Navy TFX in the 1960s, the test pilots were the real cause of its demise, with none of them having anything good to say about the airplane. With the JSF, the opposite has occurred. There were eight test pilots from the military and Lockheed Martin, including one from the Royal Air Force. They completed 138 flights in the three variants, totaling 106.9 flight hours. Four or five flights took place per day, whereas most experimental programs call for four or five per week. This accomplishment testifies to the reliability of the aircraft. Further, there was nothing even close to an accident in the 138 test flights. The pilots flew hundreds of flights in simulators before manning the experimental models, another improvement in the acquisition process.

In field carrier landing practice flights, test pilots could introduce intentional deviations in glide slope, lineup, and angle of attack to check the characteristics of the plane in correcting for these deviations. Test pilot Greg Fenton, with more than 600 carrier landings in his career, was highly enthusiastic about this aspect of JSF performance, giving evidence that U.S. and British carrier aviators will be pleased with the carrier landing characteristics.

Integration of flight and power systems will aid in the JSF's maneuverability. Aerodynamic performance is expected equivalent to that in the F/A-18 and F-16 aircraft. With the single engine providing 25,000 pounds of thrust in normal operations and 40,000 pounds with afterburner, supersonic speed was demonstrated easily in all three variants. For flight deck handling, the space required by the JSF is equivalent to or less than the versions of the F/A-18 aircraft. Maintenance personnel find the JSF friendly, with accessibility to critical areas at convenient heights.

The purpose of military strike aircraft is to destroy targets. The JSF has a large internal weapons bay capable of carrying more than 20 different types of weapons, including a couple of 2,000-pound-class bombs. The external carriage capability will accommodate more than 20 additional packages, from mines and fuel tanks to the most advanced precision weapons. A total weapons payload of 20,000 pounds is shown for at least one variant, a vast improvement over the few small rockets or 100-pound bombs and 20-mm gun ammunition in the flak-suppression/interdiction jet aircraft of the Korean War.

Further, the information required to hit a target—precise data on battlefield activity needed for single or coordinated attacks on fixed or mobile targets—is evident. In the past, the controlling element in aircraft production usually has been engine availability or some key element of the weapon system. Now it is the computer and communication technology supplying an unprecedented amount of filtered or analyzed data that enables the pilot to hit the target. Coupled with that ability is the "stealth" feature of the JSF. Its "kill probability" likely will be very high.

Contributing Factors

Several factors have made this new entry into the weapons arsenal impressive. First is technology, which has made commonality possible. Probably the most significant factor enabling Lockheed Martin to win the concept demonstration phase was the design for meeting the Marine Corps/U.K. STOVL requirement. In this design, the shaft of the turbine engine is extended into the forward part of the airplane, where it drives a large lift fan. Doors above and below the lift fan open to provide a vertical path for compression of ambient air to provide more than 18,000 pounds of lift. Simultaneously, the tail of the engine rotates downward to provide lift for the after part of the aircraft. The three-bearing exhaust duct design, which turns 17,600 pounds of thrust through a 105 [degrees] arc, is a concept developed by Russia, refined by the United States, and built by Rolls Royce of Great Britain. With small air ducts providing an additional 3,700 pounds of thrust exiting from the inboard section of the wings, the aircraft has four points of lift—one forward, one aft, and one under the wing on each side of the fuselage—generating almost 40,000 pounds of lift while the engine is in military power. The result is stability, attained with considerably less power than in conventional vertical-lift aircraft. Further, temperatures from engine thrust are much reduced, a factor that will avoid burning up runways and flight decks. Technology has produced a system far better than anticipated and one that provides commonality in meeting varying requirements.

Technology also has enhanced affordability, for which much credit goes to the DoD civilian/military program managers who rejected any concept that would cause the price to exceed an established unit cost ceiling that, according to one source, "in 1994 dollars, ranged from $28 million per plane for the Air Force version of the JSF to $38 million for the Marine Corps version." 1 Holding the price line forced the engineers to come up with new concepts, not only in the design of the aircraft, but in manufacturing, training, and logistic procedures as well. Examples include using improved composite materials to reduce weight without jeopardizing strength, conducting prognostic checks of key components to preempt failure, and increasing the reliability of parts, especially sensors (the onboard radar's hours without failure exceeded those of the projected life of the aircraft).

An impressive aspect of the JSF program is the role foreign governments will play in the acquisition process. Those chosen to participate are those contractors worldwide that can deliver a quality product while meeting affordability requirements. More than $4 billion in development funds (the entry fees for participation in the competition) from eight countries have been paid to the U.S. Treasury, not to the coffers of Lockheed Martin or any other U.S. contractor. So the JSF will be a "combined" (coalition) strike fighter, not just a "joint" strike fighter for U.S. forces. Domestic and international suppliers are working as an integrated team under the leadership of the prime contractor, with overall supervision in the Pentagon under the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, Pete Aldridge.

Support from the leaders of the services is strong—large numbers of the aircraft are being planned for all the U.S. services. Aldridge has said we will sell "1,000 to 2,000 airplanes outside of the United States." 2 The enthusiastic reception of the JSF in its design demonstration phase indicates that this aircraft will be around a long time.

A Model for the Future

The JSF acquisition story is exceptional. Industry and government worked together early in structuring the program and in determining the cost/performance trade-offs. Industry's early involvement allowed it to better understand government objectives and requirements.

Another reason for success has been the role of civilian and military managers. The process has matured, with ultimate authority vested in the acquisition czar in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, who has kept tight reins on the process and created a model for the future. To ensure cooperation between the Air Force and the Navy, the military program manager has been rotated every couple of years, with a Navy military aeronautical engineer in charge for a tour, followed by rotation to the Air Force. These military managers have been required to report to the civilian authority in the other service.

Contractor personnel and military managers have been impressed with leadership that is firm, yet avoids the micromanager techniques used so often in the past. What to do is the order, not how to do it, a refreshing situation that is appreciated and effective. Much credit for this exceptional success is given to the recommendations of the Packard Commission of 1986, which were followed in setting up the JSF program: 3

  • Get the war fighter and technologist together to leverage cost/performance trades
  • Apply technology to lower the cost of the system, not just to increase performance
  • Mature technology prior to engineering and manufacturing development
  • Ensure the solution is joint

Former acquisitions czar Dr. Paul Kaminski is credited with providing firm guidance as the program transitioned from the Joint Advanced Strike Technology Program to a joint affordable technology program. He ensured that the civilian leadership in the Air Force and Navy supported the JSF and allowed the program to mature. This has been a critical point of failure in some past programs. Further, Dr. Kaminski allowed the program manager to run the program, avoiding micromanagement.

Some individuals with acquisition experience consider the JSF program to be a good model for the future. Some of the lessons learned have been adopted for other programs. This model can do much to define and solidify joint requirements while keeping the proper balance between requirements, the ability of technology to produce, and the need to keep a system affordable.

The JSF has been a long time emerging from a requirement to a proven concept. The results of the experimental flights in the concept phase, coupled with the progress made in manufacturing, logistic, and training programs, are exciting and bode well for the current phase, system development leading to production. With the leadership provided in the DoD and the response by the many worldwide contractors involved, production likely will be authorized on schedule and the armed forces of the United States and its allies will be equipped with a superb weapon—one that should do much to deter, and to deliver when deterrence fails.

It has taken more than 80 years for the aircraft acquisition process to reach this degree of maturity, but the JSF is an example of what can be accomplished with good civilian and military leadership in the Department of Defense supported by talent, patience, and perseverance in the design and production community. It may be evidence that the acquisition process has come of age.

Successes—& Failures—of Aircraft Acquisition

Jerry Hunsaker is credited with organizing the U.S. Navy's aviation design and procurement program during World War I and the 1920s. Many of Hunsaker's designs were for dirigibles, those large monsters that could stay aloft for hours and serve as the eyes of the fleet. After about 20 years of naval service, he became president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His impact on aircraft design and acquisition was tremendous, spanning more than 60 years.

Others followed, one of the most respected being George Spangenberg, who in the mid-1930s entered the Navy civil service ranks and for more than 60 years was a key figure in the evaluation of aircraft designs. Midcentury, aircraft design was taken over by industry. Men such as Ed Heinemann created winners that included the propeller-driven A-1 that served so well in Korea. His A-3 and A-4 aircraft featured the delivery of nuclear weapons from aircraft carriers, with the A-4 also serving in conventional warfare in Vietnam.

There were other great products. World War II favorites were the North American P-51, Grumman F6F, and the Vought F4U. The Korean War introduced jets, with the North American F-86 fighter the dominant factor in maintaining air superiority. The MacDonnell F-4 was a winner for both the Navy and the Air Force during the Vietnam War. The Lockheed P-3 patrol aircraft, introduced in the mid-1960s for antisubmarine warfare, most recently has been involved in fascinating missions over Afghanistan and Iraq. The Boeing B-52 bomber and the Lockheed Martin (formerly General Dynamics) F-16 fighter have been favorites for years. The United States can be proud of its record in aircraft acquisition.

But there have been some failures, where for one reason or another, resources were wasted and lives were lost. More of these have occurred in the Navy than in other services, principally because of the nature of operating aircraft from aircraft carriers.

One of the earliest examples of marginal success was the AJ Savage, designed to deliver heavy nuclear weapons from carriers. Because of the pressure to gain the capability in a short time, drastic shortcuts were taken in the acquisition process. Some claim industry was to blame for decimating design teams following World War II, thereby causing proposals of inferior quality. The Navy contributed to the problem by partially bypassing the test-before-deployment phase in the introduction of a new airplane. Following a hasty decision to produce, the Navy delivered some of the early aircraft directly to the operating squadrons that were attempting to develop and demonstrate a nuclear weapons delivery capability. As a result, operating squadrons became test as well as tactics development squadrons—not a good arrangement. While the AJ Savage had some impressive flying qualities, it was a reliability disaster. It killed people, losses that probably would have been avoided had the plane gone through normal test procedures. Fortunately, the Heinemann-designed A-3, coupled with the new Forrestal (CV-59)-class carrier with her angled deck and steam catapult, put the AJ out of business.

One of the most publicized acquisition failures was the TFX, a commonality concept forced on the Navy and Air Force by the civil authority. While the Air Force version, the F-111A, achieved some success, the Navy version was a disaster. From its ashes arose the F-14 Tomcat, still serving in the war against terrorism.

Another debacle was the proposed successor to the Navy A-6 attack aircraft, the A-12 Avenger II. Some believe the aircraft was a stretch on what technology could produce. Others contend there was a lack of cohesion within industry and between the Navy and industry. Still others lay the blame on military leadership, which should have stepped in at the proper time to correct deficiencies or cancel the program. Regardless of the cause of its difficulties, the program became so loaded with problems that it was canceled by then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney.

1 James Fallows, "Uncle Sam Buys an Airplane," The Atlantic Monthly, June 2002, p. 28.

2 E. C. Aldridge, Sea Power Magazine, October 2002, p. 48.

3 RAdm. Craig Steidle, USN (Ret.), former JSF program manager, conversations and e-mail communications with the author during 2002.

Vice Admiral Miller is a combat veteran of three wars. He has flown more than 60 types of aircraft, including helicopters, gliders, the Air Force F-11A and B-52, and the Russian MiG-15. He is a student of military aircraft acquisition, and was intimately involved in this process during much of the Vietnam War.


Vice Admiral Miller, "in one way or another," he says, "was intimately involved in the Korean War from the first to the last day." He is the author of Nuclear Weapons and Aircraft Carriers: How the Bomb Saved Naval Aviation (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001), and his most recent article for Naval History, "How We Targeted the Nukes," appeared in the February 2002 issue.

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