The new Joint Strike Fighter is one of the most
sophisticated war machines ever conceived and may also change the
way engineering is taught.
When the requirements for the Joint Strike Fighter airplane
were first proposed by the Pentagon in the early 1990s, many in the
defense industry thought the government was asking for the impossible.
The next generation fighter jet, worth $200 billion to whomever would
build it, needed to be the most flexible war machine ever built.
It needed to fly at supersonic speeds and have enemy
radar evading stealth capabilities. It would be the first such fighter
rugged enough to land on carriers for the Navy but also with vertical
takeoff and landing capabilities for the Marine Corps. The Air Force
wanted the latest in digital technology, with a wide range of bombing
capabilities—from 2,000 pound air-to-surface missiles to gun
turrets mounted on the wing. And it needed to have a travel radius
of 600 nautical miles.
Besides these tech specifications, there were other
issues the builder of this plane had to deal with. The JSF would be
a true multinational fighter plane. Other countries would not just
purchase it; they would help design planes specific to their needs.
But the real kicker on the project was cost. Even though the JSF would
do much more than any previous fighter jet, the Defense Department
wanted the plane at a cheaper cost than the current F-16s and F-22s.
And one more thing. Whoever would get the contract could
be assured that their company would survive. In the world of consolidation
and mergers among defense contractors, the loser might not be able
to keep going.
When Lockheed Martin beat out Boeing in October 2001,
and was awarded the $200 billion JSF contract that stretches over 25
years, it was the largest military contract ever awarded. Partly because
of the contract, Lockheed Martin is adding 4,500 jobs, while Boeing
laid off 30,000 in 2002. From a logistical standpoint, the next- generation
fighter is one of the most challenging military engineering projects
ever attempted. On a number of levels, from manufacturing to cost controls
to ever changing software requirements, the JSF program will dominate
military aeronautical engineering through the first half of this century.
In fact, the JSF may be the last conventional fighter plane built as
the military moves toward remote-controlled attack aircraft.
The earliest challenge for Lockheed Martin, which will
manufacture the plane in Fort Worth, Tex., is the hiring of so many
engineers to make the JSF a reality. In 2002, Lockheed Martin was averaging
30 to 50 engineers hired every week–by the end of the year, the
company had hired 3,000 people for the project, most of them engineers.
" Bringing more people on every day continues
to be a challenge," says John Fuller, vice president of Lockheed
Martin's JSF F-35 Air Vehicle Unit. Fuller says that one way
the company is managing such a huge workforce is to group them into
integrated product teams (IPTs). Made up of Lockheed Martin's
prime contractors on the project—BAE Systems and Northrup Grumman,
as well as suppliers and subcontractors—each IPT unit will have
specific tasks. "We feel very strongly about that approach," Fuller
says. "You get the best value for the customer if you create
a team of multidisciplined folks, put them in a cage together, and
let the best ideas come out of that."
The interdisciplinary nature of the project is generating the need
for engineers with backgrounds in many areas. Lockheed Martin is hiring
mechanical, electrical, aeronautical, and software engineers. The major
difference between this fighter jet and its predecessors is not innovation
but process. The engineers in this case did not start with a mandate
to make a plane fly faster and higher and with certain payload requirements.
Instead, the design of the JSF owed as much to the requirements of
the factory floor and the ability to fix the plane cheaply in the hangar
when it breaks down.
" Every decision we make across the program has to address
cost," explains Jim Engelland, the JSF systems integration director. "We've
always worked under a performance mantra, that is, get as much performance
out of an aircraft as we can. Before JSF, nobody ever said, ‘If
I can add five pounds here, this part will be easier to manufacture
and will cost less.' We have asked all of our integrated product
teams to design and develop as though they were spending their own
The change in philosophy was due to budgetary contractions in the
1990s. During the Cold War, the armed services asked for military hardware
and it was delivered with little thought to cost. Though the defense
budget is increasing in fiscal year 2003 by 11 percent (to $335 billion),
it decreased by 50 percent from 1990 to 1997. In 1993, engineers at
MIT formed the Lean Aerospace Initiative (LAI) to help defense contractors
deal with the budget cuts. The LAI was a consortium of academics, labor
unions, defense contractors, and government agencies that worked to
explore better ways to deploy military technology at a reasonable price.
Lockheed Martin was one of the defense contractors that participated
(and continues to do so) in the LAI.
" The LAI didn't come up with technology specifically," says
LAI director Earll Muman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics
at MIT. "We were a learning community that helped contribute
knowledge that allowed the military and manufacturers to look at some
of these problems in new ways.
One of the new ways the Lockheed Martin engineers addressed the problem
of cost and performance was designing the manufacturing system before
the detailed design of the aircraft. "They said to themselves, ‘if
we can cut out this step we can cut time and save money,'" Murman
says. "Thus, the final product was the result of thinking how
the manufacturing would affect the final design. The JSF is very innovative
on how they approach engineering and manu-facturing. That type of thinking
The result is a plane that performs to the government specs but can
also be run off the assembly line in 27 days. There are three versions
of the JSF, but each has 80 percent of the design in common. The conventional
takeoff and landing version (CTOL) will replace F-16s and A-10s in
the Air Force. The short takeoff, vertical landing version (STOVL),
will be the first supersonic aircraft that takes off in short distances
and lands vertically. It will be used by the Marine Corps and replace
Britain's Harrier Jump Jet. The carrier-based version (CV) will
have a longer wing span to land on carrier ships.
The difficulty with this design was to satisfy everyone. For example,
the Air Force's CTOL version needed great range, while the Marine
Corps STOVL needed a high-powered fan to allow the vertical landing.
The result is that the space used for the fan on the STOVL is used
for additional fuel on the CTOL. The wings on the CV version are essentially
the same design as the other two versions, but use a more rugged material
skin to make them hold up on the bouncy landings on the carrier.
The first preproduction aircraft are expected to fly in 2005, with
the first planes expected to roll off the assembly line in 2008, at
a cost of $37 million per plane. Over the projected production run,
more than 4,000 of the JSF are expected to be built at the Fort Worth
The flexibility of the JSF is not restricted to the physical design
but also includes the software that will help fly the planes and deliver
the weapons. The software in past fighters used analog instead of digital
technology and was designed for very narrow and specific purposes. "The
old weapons systems are very rigid," says Hal Carter, a professor
of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Cincinnati
and a former Air Force colonel. "It is very expensive economi-cally
and politically to insert new technology into old weapons. The thing
about the JSF is that they can design digital concepts right from the
beginning. As a result, retrofitting new technology won't be
the problem it has been."
For engineers, the lessons of the JSF are clear. Thinking about manufacturing
and systems are as important as implementing the latest and greatest
technology. Murman believes that the JSF program will help engineering
educators bridge the gap between pure applied science and practical
engineering. "The only way engineering educators can become competent
in these broader areas is by spending some time in industry," he
says. "We need to understand the needs of manufacturing better.
We need to teach the importance of teamwork. In that sense, the JSF,
which is taking innovative steps, provides a rich opportunity for engineering
educators to learn about these broader issues."
The lessons are not lost on some engineering departments. The University
of Texas-Arlington, with nearly 4,000 graduate and undergraduate engineering
students is just a 20-minute drive from the Lockheed Martin facility.
The school will begin tailoring some courses to fit the JSF program.
The programs are not finalized as yet, but UTA Dean of Engineering
Bill Carroll said the school is working hard to "smooth the interface" between
the school and Lockheed Martin. UTA will likely offer new degree programs
based upon the JSF program, as well as offer continuing-education courses
for current Lockheed Martin engineers already working on the project.
" It is a tremendous opportunity for us to have such a project
as this in our own backyard," Carroll says. "We will use
the JSF in some curriculum, as a way to teach many issues in engineering,
including lean manufacturing. We can respond to their needs in many
ways, and in turn, we can respond to our students' needs."
Dan McGraw is a freelance writer based in Fort Worth,
He can be reached at email@example.com.