The Buzz

X-32: The Only Plane That Could Crush the F-35 Is the One That Almost Replaced It

Chosen in 2001, the F-35 went on to become the largest Pentagon procurement project of all time, and one of the most beset by trouble. The X-32 escaped all of the most significant challenges to the F-35. The X-32 never faced decades of testing and redesign; it never saw massive cost overruns; it was never subjected to an endless series of articles about how it couldn’t out-dogfight an F-16A. Nostalgia for what might have been is common in aircraft competitions, and it’s impossible to say whether the X-32 would have run into the same difficulties of the F-35.  Given the complex nature of advanced fighter projects, the answer is almost certainly “yes.”

But in hindsight, it almost certainly would have made more sense to go with a VSTOL alternative fighter for the Marine Corps. This would have eliminated the most complex aspect of the “joint” project; the need to create an aircraft that shared critical components across three wildly different variants. This also would have helped spread the wealth across different major defense contractors, a practice that has increasingly become a Pentagon priority. Of course, given that the STOVL aspects of the F-35 and X-32 were baked in at the proposal stage, this would have required turning the clock back all the way to 1993, not just to 2001.

Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to TNI, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. 

This first appeared in 2016.