The Department of Defense didn’t have to opt for the F-35. In the 1990s, both Boeing and Lockheed Martin bid for the next big fighter contract — a plane that would serve in each of the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, as well as grace the air forces of many U.S. allies.
Boeing served up the X-32; Lockheed the X-35.
The Pentagon chose the F-35.
Given the struggles of the last decade with the Joint Strike Fighter, it’s impossible not to wonder about what might have been.
What if the Pentagon had gone with Boeing’s X-32 instead, or with some combination of the two aircraft?
At the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon proposed a joint fighter project in the hopes of reducing the overall logistical tail of fielded forces, as well as in minimizing development costs.
The DoD had not, historically, had good luck with joint programs, but the hope was that increased “jointness” between the services, combined with more advanced production techniques and more carefully refined logistics procedures, would make a shared fighter worth the effort.
All parties understood that the winner of the competition would likely enjoy a great deal of export success, as many air forces around the world required a fifth-generation fighter. In short, this was the biggest deal on the horizon of the post-Cold War defense industry.