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The Joint Strike Fighter program started with a set of requirements for a tactical fighter that would meet the operational needs of the US Air Force, US Navy, and US Marine Corps using an airframe that maximized the number of common parts and thereby reduce development and maintenance costs. As with any ambitious program like this, the devil is in the details and as the program evolved, challenges arose. The first step in the program was to determine the best overall design and Boeing developed the X-32 that had, shall we say, a rather unique appearance. Lockheed Martin countered with the X-35 and this design would ultimately prevail. This victory made Lockheed Martin the only US company to produce the only two Generation Five fighters in US service – the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II.
As development continued on the F-35, it became clear that the operational differences between the military services was going to pose a greater engineering challenge than originally thought. The F-35A for the USAF was straightforward and didn’t pose any great challenges, but of course the facility producing the F-35 also produces the F-16 Fighting Falcon which the F-35 will eventually replace. The F-35C for the US Navy was going to be more difficult as it would need larger wings and horizontal stabilators for better low-speed performance getting on and off the deck of aircraft carriers. The larger wings mean folding wings which also means more weight and complexity (anyone remembering the F/A-18 Hornet early development will remember these wing challenges). Even now, the all-important arresting hook for the aircraft is still not reliably ‘trapping’ the aircraft on landing (catching the arresting gear) but this bug will soon be fixed.
That brings us to the most challenging variant of the F-35 series – the F-35B. Designed for the US Marine Corps, this aircraft needs to be capable of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) under extreme conditions and short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) under normal conditions. This magic feat is accomplished with a combination of articulating afterburner nozzle on the rear of the aircraft and a lift fan behind the cockpit. Both of these systems are powered by a single engine similar to the Harrier it replaces. In normal flight, the F-35B will have very similar capabilities as the F-35A and F-35C.
Despite much of the critical reviews of the F-35, the program is getting back on track and the recent sea trials of two F-35B STOVL aircraft aboard USS Wasp proved that the Marines will get a very capable aircraft to replace the aging Harrier. Unfortunately, with the tragic loss of eight VMA-211’s Harriers to a Taliban attack on September 14th, 2012 and the death of the squadron’s commanding officer and one of it’s NCOs, it will be very unlikely that we’ll see forward deployment of the F-35 until such a time that we’re seeing the Generation Six fighters coming online (and these are not on the drawing boards yet!).