Lockheed Martin's JSF win is Boeing's loss ... or is it?

It looks like Lockheed Martin has a lock on the U.S. manned jet fighter business for the foreseeable future.

Dec 1st, 2001

By John Keller
editor-in-chief
Military & Aerospace Electronics

It looks like Lockheed Martin has a lock on the U.S. manned jet fighter business for the foreseeable future. As for Boeing, it remains to be seen. Lockheed Martin solidified its hold on manned fighter manufacturing in late October when Pentagon leaders awarded the company a contract to develop and build the future F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). With an overall plan to build as many as 3,000 F-35 strike fighters, the potential $200 billion JSF program may be one of the richest military contracts ever.

The Lockheed Martin Aeronautical Systems division in Fort Worth, Texas, is set to build the JSF with partner Northrop Grumman Corp. of Los Angeles, and with a long list of subcontractors who will provide the new aircraft with a dizzying array of advanced sensors, computers, electronic warfare gear, engine controls, and digital networking. The Lockheed Martin/Northrop Grumman team includes the likes of BAE Systems, Elbit, Goodrich, Green Hills Software, Harris Corp., Honeywell, Kaiser, Raytheon Co., Rockwell Collins, Smiths Aerospace, and TRW, to name only a few.

Some residents of Fort Worth who have connections to the JSF project reportedly cried tears of joy at news of Lockheed Martin's win. Some of them reportedly said the JSF not only will help send their children to college, but their children's children as well.

The loser in the JSF competition is Boeing, which now must fall back on its embattled commercial jetliner business, which has taken some severe hits since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, will consolidate its leadership in the tactical combat jet business by adding the F-35 to its F-22 Raptor advanced tactical fighter job, which Lockheed Martin won a decade ago. This is the way it looks on paper, anyhow.

Without a doubt, the F-35 JSF will mean millions — perhaps billions — of dollars to each company involved in its construction. The project was a can't-lose proposition to several second-tier subsystems designers, such as BAE Systems, which would have been major F-35 suppliers even if Boeing had won the job. As for Boeing, don't count that company out of the tactical military airplane business just yet.

With regard to the F-35, Boeing designers and their partners at Raytheon put in substantial design work on their JSF entry — particularly in advanced avionics — and it's doubtful that the nation's top military leaders will let that investment go to waste. Before the first production F-35 rolls off the assembly line, Boeing is likely to become involved in the program in some way. Boeing leaders are already meeting with aircraft officials in the Pentagon to determine if they should take part in the Lockheed Martin project to build the JSF.

Those connected to Lockheed Martin would be well advised to control their euphoria over winning the JSF job. Pentagon leaders say they will ask Lockheed Martin to build 3,000 JSF aircraft over the life of the program. That number would include U.S. Air Force jets, carrier-based U.S. Navy jets, vertical- and short-takeoff versions for the U.S. Marine Corps and British Royal Navy, and other foreign sales. I think we'll be lucky to see even a quarter of that 3,000 ever come out of the Lockheed Martin plant in Fort Worth.

Anytime a new aircraft program cranks up, the initial number of planned buys suggests a lucrative program. We all saw the initial numbers of planned buys for the F-22 and the B-2 bomber. Actual purchases of those aircraft will come nowhere close to initial estimates. Even purchases of the Navy Boeing F/A-18 Hornet fighter-bomber, which is a stunningly successful program, will not meet initially estimated numbers.

So it will be with the JSF. One reason for this almost-certain shortfall in aircraft purchases involves money. Defense budgets are expected to grow under the guidance of President Bush, but there simply is not the money flowing into the Pentagon as there was 20 years ago under President Reagan. The most compelling reason that JSF purchases most likely will not meet today's estimates, however, is where we are on the time line.

We are on the verge of a major paradigm shift where tactical aircraft are concerned. We see the beginning of this change today in the skies over Afghanistan in the guise of the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Predator was designed as a surveillance platform for high-risk areas so as to avoid placing aircraft pilots in harm's way. But Predator today isn't carrying only cameras. Many of those UAVs are armed with the Hellfire anti-tank missile. This is the first time that armed UAVs are going into combat, and it's a hint of things to come.

Already the defense industry is gearing up research on a new generation of so-called "unmanned combat aerial vehicles," or UCAVs. Once these aircraft come on line and prove their worth in combat, the days of the manned jet fighter — except in niche applications — will begin drawing to a close. UCAVs will be smaller, lighter, less expensive, and better performing than manned jet fighters. After all, an unmanned aircraft could be designed to withstand a 12-g turn. A human pilot would black out under such strain.

And which U.S. aerospace company — in addition to Lockheed Martin — is well positioned to design and build UCAVs? That's right, Boeing.

So before we cheer ourselves hoarse over Lockheed Martin's win in the JSF sweepstakes, or cry ourselves to sleep over Boeing's loss, remember what's on the horizon of combat aircraft design. Boeing is still in the military aircraft business, and is poised to make a name for itself in future generations of unmanned combat aircraft.

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