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Friday, 26 October, 2001, 22:56 GMT 23:56 UK
JSF: The last manned fighter?
Technical details of the Lockheed Martin fighter
By Tim Robinson, of Aerospace International

The decision by the Pentagon to award the contract on the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) to Lockheed Martin will influence combat aircraft well into the 21st century.

The choice was critical, not only for the industrial ramifications of this $200bn deal, but because the aircraft will become the backbone of US and UK air forces well into the middle of this century.

In fact, with the rise of unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs), - or armed robot drones, the JSF could well be the last manned fighter ever built.

Given the stakes, it was no surprise that Boeing and Lockheed Martin went all out to win.

Bulk buy

The JSF project itself first grew out of a realisation in the US defence circles that if fighter aircraft prices grew at the then present rate, the US would only be able to afford a single aircraft in 2054.

Lockheed Martin X-35B
The new fighter must be able to take-off vertically
The JSF's key design feature then, is affordability, with both Lockheed Martin and Boeing using virtual reality, rapid prototyping and flying demonstrators (which completed their tests in August) to drive down costs.

The affordability of the new fighter will also be helped by the bulk buy involved, with over 3,000 to be bought by the US Air Force, US Navy, US Marine Corps and the UK RAF and Royal Navy.

In US service, the JSF will replace such strike aircraft as the F-16, A-10 Warthog and F/A-18 Hornets.

For the UK, it will succeed the RAF's Harrier GR7s and the Royal Navy's Sea Harrier FRS2s.

As an added benefit using one type of strike fighter among allies promotes "interoperability", a buzzword for today's militaries that need to fight in coalitions with other nations.

Reinventing the Harrier

The JSF will come in several variants all having a great deal in common; a baseline air force model, a carrier version with folding wings and a short take-off, vertical landing (STOVL) variant that will replace Harriers in US and UK inventories.

Improving the Harrier's vertical flight is the most difficult to achieve, and Boeing and Lockheed Martin took radical paths to accomplish this.

Boeing opted for an update of the Harrier's direct lift system, while Lockheed Martin went for an innovative lifting fan driven by the main engine.

Situational awareness

The JSF in service will be a supersonic stealthy strike aircraft, with the latest precision weapons, such as GPS and laser-guided bombs, as well as air-to-air missiles to engage other aircraft.

The pilot will have unparalleled 'situational awareness' or a 'God's eye' view of the battlefield projected on large colour cockpit displays using radar, sensors and off-board datalinks.

The pilot will be equipped with a helmet-mounted sight that will allow them to target enemies literally 'over-their-shoulder'.

The aircraft, while being stealthy, will also be easy to maintain - a disadvantage of previous stealth aircraft like the F-117 Nighthawk and B-2 bomber are their special ground support requirements to enable them to remain invisible to radar.

Taking the flak

However, the JSF has come in for censure from some quarters.

The US General Accounting Office (GAO) has warned twice that some of the technologies involved in the project are 'immature' and the programme needs delaying until these are sorted out.

Detractors say the JSF is meant to be cheap, yet the price of the production aircraft could be much more expensive.

Other critics have argued that in the post-11 September world, money earmarked for the JSF would be better spent on upgrading intelligence capabilities to track down terrorists.

The right fighter for the right war?

Despite these views, it is clear from the air campaign on Afghanistan, the carrier strike aircraft is still the first weapon of choice in the US arsenal.

The JSF, in US and UK service, will enhance this and enable both countries to project long-range firepower, without needing airbases in a nearby country, which are vulnerable to attack or political sensitivities.

Its stealth design will allow it to operate unmolested, while its precision strike capabilities will get the job done.

The US White House has already requested that the JSF's production be accelerated by two years, to bring the fighter into service in around 2010.

Should the "war on terror" prove to be drawn-out, the JSF could still find itself with a vital role to play.

See also:

26 Oct 01 | Business
Lockheed wins fighter contract
26 Oct 01 | Business
Air contract set to boost UK jobs
26 Oct 01 | Business
Lockheed wins $200bn dogfight
25 Oct 01 | Business
Dogfight over $200bn air contract
21 Jun 01 | Business
Rivals battle to win fighter deal
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