Key point: If the Pentagon had chosen differently, we would be talking about the powerful X-32 and F-23 instead.
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The Department of Defense (DoD) 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 US allies. Boeing served up the X-32; Lockheed the X-35.
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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 DoD had gone with Boeing’s X-32 instead, or with some combination of the two aircraft?
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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. Each of the three fighter-flying services needed replacements for the 4th generation aircraft in their inventory; the F-15 and F-16 in the case of the Air Force, and the F/A-18 and AV-8B Harrier in the case of the Navy and the Marine Corps. The new fighter, thus, needed conventional, carrier, and STOVL (short take off vertical landing) configurations.