The Boeing X-32: A Controversial Stealth Aircraft is Unveiled (Video)

The Boeing X-32: Revolutionizing Air Warfare

The Boeing X-32 is the most appealing stealth aircraft ever created.

The F-35 Lightning II is gradually becoming a centerpiece of the U.S. armed forces – and the forces of its allies. But before the F-35 entered production, it had to win its place in a head-to-head competition with another fighter contender: the Boeing X-32. In the 1990s, the U.S. spearheaded a monumental contract competition – the Joint Strike Fighter, or JSF. The JSF stood apart from the fighter contracts that had been issued continuously for decades. It marked a drastic shift in the paradigm of U.S. air power.

Throughout the Cold War, aircraft were designed to do one thing and do it well. For example, the A-10 was built to provide close air support. No interception, no air superiority, no precision bombing – close air support was the job, and nothing else. Notoriously, the A-10 has proven to be an exceptional provider of close air support. Similar examples abound. The F-15 was built “without a pound for air-to-ground” as a pure air superiority fighter. The F-104, crafted in the shape of a rocket, was built to intercept enemy fighters. The A-6 was built to drop bombs.

While aircraft were designed to perform a single purpose perfectly, this format was expensive. It was complicated. The logistics were a nightmare in the butt. U.S. forces wanted something simpler, something streamlined, something that would allow for a more efficient force structure. The JSF was the culmination of that desire. The competition was meant to find a jet that could do everything adequately. One jet would be a jack of all trades, and this would simplify procurement, training, and maintenance.

The JSF wasn’t only designed to streamline the U.S. force structure but also to streamline the force structure of the entire network of U.S. allies. The JSF’s end product would serve in the UK, Italy, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Denmark, Germany, Norway, Japan, and Singapore. All would use the same JSF, which would allow the allies to sync up and improve network connectivity.

Ugly Duckling

Four proposals were submitted for the JSF. Two were chosen for prototype testing. Only one would win the JSF contract, which was to be especially lucrative. The first airframe was of course the F-35’s ancestor, the prototype Lockheed X-35. The second airframe was the JSF’s loser, the Boeing X-32, which had faded into obscurity and is remembered more as an ugly appearance than anything else. Still, the X-32 reeked of efficiency.

In an effort to win the JSF contract, Boeing emphasized the X-32’s low manufacturing and lifecycle costs. According to Boeing, the X-32 was around a large, one-piece carbody, easy to replicate on an assembly line, which would work as the foundation for multiple X-32 variants. The common airframe also carried a similar direct-lift system for the X-32, which could be easily swapped out for Short Takeoff and Vertical Landing (STOVL) or carrier-based vertical thrust nozzles. Boeing’s cost-streamlining approach, in fact, was consistent with the ideology that motivated the JSF.

The X-32’s flight tests were not particularly stellar, however. A team of mechanics had to reconfigure the aircraft between STOVL and supersonic modes, which was time-consuming, on the ground. Lockheed’s entry, on the other hand, handled the transition between STOVL and supersonic flight without breaking a sweat. Not surprisingly, the JSF evaluators favored the X-35. As a result, the X-32 was passed over, never to be produced. Only two X-32s were ever built. You can find one at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, and the other at the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum.

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