What is commonly known
today as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program had its origination
in several programs from the late 1980s and early 1990s. Over
the years, several tactical aircraft acquisition programs
have attempted to deliver new warfighting capabilities to
the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and our close allies.
A brief summary of these preceding programs is provided below:
Short Take-Off/Vertical Landing (ASTOVL) 1983-1994
Strike Fighter(SSF) 1987-1994
Affordable Lightweight Fighter (CALF) 1993-1994
Fighter (MRF) 1990-1993
Tactical Aircraft (ATA) 1983-1991
Advanced Tactical Fighter (NATF) 1990-1991
Take-Off/Vertical Landing (ASTOVL) 1983-1994
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) began
a program in 1983 to begin looking at the technologies available
to design and manufacture a follow-on supersonic replace for
the AV-8 Harrier. The program, known as ASTOVL, would eventually
lead become a joint U.S.-U.K. collaboration. In 1987 the results
of the ASTOVL program made clear that the technologies available
were not yet advanced enough to generate a replacement that
the U.S. and U.K. would have been satisfied with. At this time,
DARPA secretly approached the Lockheed Skunk Works in the
hopes that they would be able to develop an aircraft like
they had hoped would have appeared from the first phase of
ASTOVL. Lockheed told DARPA that they had some ideas that
could be matured and that, if they were successful would meet
the goals that DARPA was trying to achieve. At the same time,
DARPA continued with ASTOVL Phase II as a cover for the covert
work being done at the Skunk Works.
i. STOVL Strike
Fighter (SSF) 1987-1994
In the late 1980s the Lockheed Skunk Works was involved
in a classified, non-acknowledged program with NASA Ames
that looked into the feasibility of designing a stealthy
supersonic STOVL fighter. This was a cooperative program
that utilized the assets of NASA (wind tunnels, personnel,
super-computers, etc.) along with the expertise of the Lockheed
Skunk Works in designing stealthy air vehicles. The results
from this highly classified program proved that a SSF could
be successfully flown. Management at the Lockheed Skunk
Works was convinced that the SSF design could be sold to
both the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy. (The U.S. Navy (NAVAIR)
is the procuring office for Marine Corps aircraft.) The
Skunk Works proposed a teaming between the USAF and the
USN. The services agreed, a Memorandum of Understanding
(MOU) was signed between the services and the SSF program
began to come out of the black.
Affordable Lightweight Fighter (CALF) 1993-1994
The ASTOVL/SSF concepts were originally seen as developing
a replacement for the U.S. and U.K. Harrier jump-jet. As the
ASTOVL/SSF concepts became multi-service with the suggestion
of multiple variants, the program was re-christened as the
Common Affordable Lightweight Fighter (CALF).
The management of the CALF program was
handed by DARPA due to the experimental nature of the concept.
DARPA was also managing the ASTOVL program, which was used
by the SSF program as their unclassified, white-world cover
The CALF program's aim was to develop
the technologies and concepts to support the ASTOVL aircraft
for the USMC and Royal Navy (RN) and a highly-common conventional
flight variant for the U.S. Air Force.
Although the CALF program was organized
upon a suggestion from Lockheed, the government still wanted
multiple contractors involved in the program. Initially,
the only two contractors involved were Lockheed and McDonnell
Douglas. Boeing later approached DARPA and offered to meet
DARPA's financial contribution if they were allowed onto
Under the auspices of the CALF program,
The CALF program has also been called the Joint Attack Fighter
The U.S. Air Force’s MRF program began in 1991 as a
relatively low-cost F-16 replacement. Similar in size to the
F-16, the MRF was to have been a single-seat / single-engine
aircraft, with a unit flyaway cost in the range of $35 to
The MRF Program was managed by the Aeronautical
Systems Center (ASC) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.
ASC hosted a planning meeting with industry in October 1991,
and issued a Request For Information (RFI) with responses
due in January 1992. The major U.S. aircraft manufacturers
began to conduct concept and design studies for the MRF at
their own expense.
A formal program start was expected around
1994. The MRF was expected to replace a large number of F-16s
reaching the end of service life. The MRF might also have
replaced Air Force A-10s and Navy F/A-18C/Ds. Therefore, providing
large numbers of aircraft affordably was a higher priority
for the MRF Program than any specific capability enhancements.
However, the post-Cold War defense drawdown
made the F-16 service life situation considerably less critical.
A reduction in the total number of U.S. Air Force fighter
wings meant that the existing aircraft would not be replaced
one-for-one. Furthermore, F-16 aircraft flying hours were
reduced, allowing F-16s to remain in service longer than originally
In August 1992, the MRF program was effectively
put on hold. Due to budget pressures and the Air Force’s
commitment to the F/A-22 program, sufficient funding for a
new program start did not appear likely until around 2000.
Until then, it was expected that MRF activity would proceed
at a low level. Meanwhile, the Air Force intended to continue
production of Block 50 F-16s. By early 1993, however, the
MRF’s projected IOC had slipped to 2015. Shortly thereafter,
the BUR canceled the MRF Program.
Aircraft (ATA) 1983-1991
The U.S. Navy Advanced Tactical Aircraft (ATA) program began
in 1983 as a proposed long range, very low observable, high
payload medium-attack aircraft to replace the Grumman A-6
in the carrier-based, medium-attack role.
On January 13, 1988 the McDonnell Douglas
and General Dynamics team was selected over a Northrop team
to develop the ATA. Designated the A-12 Avenger II, the unique
flying wing design was to be a long-range, subsonic aircraft
with a large internal weapons load including air-to-surface
and air-to-air weapons.
Following the disclosure of severe cost
and schedule overruns and technical problems in late 1990,
the A-12 program was canceled on 7 January 1991.
Tactical Fighter (NATF) 1990-1991
Due to Congressional intervention, the U.S. Navy agreed to evaluate
a navalized version of the U.S. Air Force's Advanced Tactical
Fighter (now the F/A-22) as a possible replacement for their
F-14s. In return, the U.S. Air Force would evaluate a derivative
of the ATA as a replacement for their F-111s.
In late 1988, a Naval ATF (NATF) program
office was set up at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the
existing ATF Dem/Val contracts were modified to include studies
of potential NATF variants.
The Major Aircraft Review reduced the peak
production rates of both the ATF and NATF. This had the effect
of substantially increasing the program cost. In August 1990,
Admiral Richard Dunleavy, who was in charge of Navy aircraft
requirements, stated that he did not see how the NATF could
fit into any affordable plan for naval aviation. In early
1991, before the final contractor for the ATF was even selected,
the consideration of the NATF was dropped. This was mainly
due to the fact that the Navy realized that a series of upgrades
to their existing F-14's could meet the Navy's air superiority
needs through 2015.
In January 1991, with the cancellation of the ATA and the
NATF, the Secretary of the Navy directed that planning commence
for a new A-6 replacement program. This new program became
the known as the A-X, an advanced, “high-end,”
carrier-based multi-mission aircraft with day/night/all-weather
capability, low observables, long range, two engines, two-crew,
and advanced, integrated avionics and countermeasures. The
Air Force participated in this new program from its initiation,
still seeking a replacement for the F-111 and, in the longer
term, the F-15E and F-117A.
Contracts of $20M each were awarded to five
contractor teams on 30 December 1991 (prime contractor listed
- Lockheed/Boeing/General Dynamics
- McDonnell Douglas/Vought
- General Dynamics/McDonnell Douglas/Northrop
The original A-X / A/F-X CE/D work was
due to be completed in September 1992. A solicitation for
Demonstration/Validation (Dem/Val) proposals was expected
in late 1992, leading to a Dem/Val start in 1994 and EMD in
1996. Under the Navy’s original plan, the short Dem/Val
phase would consist of design refinements and other risk reduction
activities, but would not include flying prototypes. However,
in late 1992 Congress directed that the A-X Dem/Val phase
also include competitive prototyping. This increased the projected
duration of the Dem/Val phase from two to five years. Concurrently,
as a result of the termination of the NATF in 1991, increased
air-to-air requirements were added to the A-X, prompting a
change in the name of the Program from Advanced Attack (A-X)
to Advanced Attack/Fighter (A/F-X).
The existing A-X CE/D contracts were extended
to reflect a revised Dem/Val strategy to accommodate flying
prototypes. The expected IOC date of the A/F-X slipped from
2006 to 2008. A Defense Acquisition Board (DAB) Milestone
I Review of the A/F-X Program was expected in Spring 1993;
however, the BUR placed the A/F-X program on hold pending
the outcome of the report. An Milestone I DAB for the A/F-X
never took place.
On 1 September 1993, the release of the
BUR announced the cancellation of the A/F-X as well as the
MRF. As a result of the BUR, A/F-X efforts during the latter
half of 1993 were directed toward closing out the program
and transitioning applicable experience and results to the
upcoming JAST program.
A core of A/F-X personnel performed a large
portion of the working-level planning and definition of the
emerging JAST Program. The A/F-X CE/D contracts were extended
a second time, through 17 December 1993, to allow the contractors
sufficient time to bring their activities to a logical conclusion.
All A/F-X program operations ended on 31 December 1993.