How The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter May Have Benefited from Soviet Technology

Military Tech

For all the yelling and shouting over the Department of Defense’s much-maligned F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, there’s an unusual, often overlooked footnote in the trillion-dollar project’s history: its origins as an experimental Soviet fighter that only fell into Lockheed Martin’s lap because a desperate Russian aerospace company needed some cold, hard cash.

Before the F-35, there was the Yak-141 ‘Freestyle’ multi-role vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) fighter born during a tumultuous period in Russian military history. Though the Yak-141’s first flight in 1987 was a revolutionary contribution to the development of VTOL systems, the hovering death bird was largely developed as the Soviet Union came apart at the seams, and the newly-broke Russian military was in no position to continue development of the new aircraft after the Berlin Wall.

The Yak-141 manufacturer, Yakovlev, suddenly was faced with the reality of capitalism: Namely, you need money to do cool things. And nearly 30 years after the first flight of the Yak-141, the U.S. Marine Corps is taking off vertically from carriers with it’s F-35Bs. Here’s how the experimental Soviet fighter gave birth to the most controversial aircraft of the modern era.

A Yak-141 performs a barrel roll.

The Soviets get vertical

The Yak-141 was the supposed to be a major technological leap in Soviet Union’s VTOL program, which kicked into high gear in the 1970s after the Soviet Union took note of the iconic Harrier’s development in the UK But the program initially had trouble getting off the ground due to the dismal performance of the Yak-141’s predecessor the Yak-38 ‘Forger,” which Soviet military officials deemed, well, a pile of flying dogshit following its unveiling in 1971.

Despite its functional VTOL system, it lacked the extended combat range of the Harrier as well as reliable radar system and appropriately lethal armament — not to mention the Yak-38’s terrifying automatic ejection seat that both saved lives and surprised the shit out of the pilot when it shot them out of the plane without warning. Although the National Interest argues that the Yak-38 was a concept aircraft that pushed into service to help fill holes in Soviet Naval Aviation and never meant for frontline combat, it was the operational VTOL aircraft in the Soviet arsenal for a decade.

A Yak-38 crashes shortly after take off.

The Yak-141 was specifically designed by Yakovlev to address the shortcomings of the Yak-38, namely speed and range. Two flying prototypes were green-lit and flew in 1987, and the aircraft broke several records that, according to Yakovlev, make it the first aircraft to perform both VTOL flight and supersonic level flight.

But after one of only two prototypes exploded while landing on the aircraft carrier Admiral Groshev in September of 1991, the program was effectively crippled. The Soviet Union was finishing its own economic and political disaster, and the resulting tumult that swept across the Russian military establishment creating a mountain of problems for Yakovlev to overcome if they wanted to see the Yak-141 fly again.  

Yak-141 explodes on landing, the pilot ejected and survived.

The Cold War melts

Luckily for Yakovlev, America’s favorite plucky multi-billion dollar defense contractor raced in to save the day. As the Iron Curtain receded across Europe, defense giant Lockheed Martin started to pour money into Yak-141 program in order to glean some sweet, sweet former Soviet engineering secrets. The two companies allegedly signed an agreement in 1991 (but not revealed until 1995) that outlined funding for additional Yak-141 prototypes, including a plan to fly the remaining operational prototype the Farnborough Airshow in September 1992.

While Lockheed most likely had zero intention of helping produce the Yak-141 for export; it would make more sense that the entire contract was a cover for procuring testing data on the Yak-141 program, including most importantly any VTOL data obtained through years of testing and development. And Lockheed wasn’t the only American organization looking to learn from the Soviet-era VTOL program. Consider this document from 1993 that NASA published on the Yak VTOL technology:

Military hardware that had once been highly classified and the basis for our own defense planning was now openly marketed at airshows around the world...This environment permitted a visit to the Yakovlev Design Bureau, (YAK) for a vertical/short takeoff and landing (VSTOL) technology assessment. Yakovlev is the FSU's sole Design Bureau with experience in VSTOL aircraft and has developed two flying examples, the YAK-38 'FORGER' and YAK-141 'FREESTYLE'”

It’s that critical data that likely helped shape the development of the engine systems that are the heart and soul of the modern F-35.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter takes off

The X-35 demonstrates STOVL capability.

After the Yakovlev-Lockheed partnership was publically revealed in 1995 and formally ended in 1997, but the Yak-141’s unique designs persisted.  When Lockheed entered a VTOL variant of its X-35 demonstrator into the Pentagon’s Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) in 1994, the submitted engine design proposal was radically different from initial proposal developed prior to the Yakovlev deal. Indeed, the VTOL design was changed to ‘ASTOVL Configuration 141’; while it is possible that this name was a coincidence, it’s worth noting for the possible reference to the Yak-141.

It seems likely that the Yak-141 test data was most applied to Lockheed’s VTOL engine design in some way, although the classified nature of the Joint Strike Fighter program makes a clear connection elusive. Air Force Magazine even mentioned the Yak connection in a 1998 feature on Joint Strike Fighter after Lockheed’s F-35 was selected for production.

“The swiveling rear exhaust is a licensed design from the Yakovlev design bureau in Russia, which tried it out on the Yak-141 STOVL fighter. It was all or nothing … If the propulsion concept didn’t work, we obviously weren’t going to be competitive.” Daniels, the Boeing executive, said the lift fan concept was “probably the single most important feature” of the competition.”

To be clear, the F-35’s overall design is not modeled after the Yak-141: The former used a different method for stabilization (see the two jets firing on the front of the plane in the GIF below) and had a different aerodynamic profile. But it’s almost certain that the data gleaned from the old Soviet VTOL project were most likely utilized in the development of the VTOL variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. And that means the F-35 owes at least part of its existence to a Soviet-era weapons program that never truly took flight.

A Yak-141 lands using forward jets for stabilization.The Soviet Union

The Yak-141 Freestyle may not technically count as a predecessor to the F-35, but the JSF does seem to have at least some Russian DNA floating around its engine design — and as the F-35 came to fruition in the United States, the Yak-141 Freestyle died a quiet death in Russia. However, if a resurgent Russian defense industry chooses to move forward with a carrier-based VTOL aircraft, at least one Russian legislator has called for the Yak-141 to be revived, most likely with a stealthier new look for a new Cold War.

A enlisted thinktank brought to you by Task & Purpose


On Nov, 10, 2004, Army Staff Sgt. David Bellavia knew that he stood a good chance of dying as he tried to save his squad.

Bellavia survived the intense enemy fire and went on to single-handedly kill five insurgents as he cleared a three-story house in Fallujah during the iconic battle for the city. For his bravery that day, President Trump will present Bellavia with the Medal of Honor on Tuesday, making him the first living Iraq war veteran to receive the award.

In an interview with Task & Purpose, Bellavia recalled that the house where he fought insurgents was dark and filled with putrid water that flowed from broken pipes. The battle itself was an assault on his senses: The stench from the water, the darkness inside the home, and the sounds of footsteps that seemed to envelope him.

Read More Show Less
(U.S. Army/Pvt. Stephen Peters)

With the Imperial Japanese Army hot on his heels, Oscar Leonard says he barely slipped away from getting caught in the grueling Bataan Death March in 1942 by jumping into a choppy bay in the dark of the night, clinging to a log and paddling to the Allied-fortified island of Corregidor.

After many weeks of fighting there and at Mindanao, he was finally captured by the Japanese and spent the next several years languishing under brutal conditions in Filipino and Japanese World War II POW camps.

Now, having just turned 100 years old, the Antioch resident has been recognized for his 42-month ordeal as a prisoner of war, thanks to the efforts of his friends at the Brentwood VFW Post #10789 and Congressman Jerry McNerney.

McNerney, Brentwood VFW Commander Steve Todd and Junior Vice Commander John Bradley helped obtain a POW award after doing research and requesting records to surprise Leonard during a birthday party last month.

Read More Show Less
(U.S. Marine Corps/Staff Sgt. Andrew Ochoa)

Editor's Note: This article by Gina Harkins originally appeared on, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

Hundreds of Marines will join their British counterparts at a massive urban training center this summer that will test the leathernecks' ability to fight a tech-savvy enemy in a crowded city filled with innocent civilians.

The North Carolina-based Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, will test drones, robots and other high-tech equipment at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center near Butlerville, Indiana, in August.

They'll spend weeks weaving through underground tunnels and simulating fires in a mock packed downtown city center. They'll also face off against their peers, who will be equipped with off-the-shelf drones and other gadgets the enemy is now easily able to bring to the fight.

It's the start of a four-year effort, known as Project Metropolis, that leaders say will transform the way Marines train for urban battles. The effort is being led by the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, based in Quantico, Virginia. It comes after service leaders identified a troubling problem following nearly two decades of war in the Middle East: adversaries have been studying their tactics and weaknesses, and now they know how to exploit them.

Read More Show Less
(Reuters/Carlos Barria)

WASHINGTON/RIYADH (Reuters) - President Donald Trump imposed new U.S. sanctions onIran on Monday following Tehran's downing of an unmanned American drone and said the measures would target Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Trump told reporters he was signing an executive order for the sanctions amid tensions between the United States and Iran that have grown since May, when Washington ordered all countries to halt imports of Iranian oil.

Trump also said the sanctions would have been imposed regardless of the incident over the drone. He said the supreme leaders was ultimately responsible for what Trump called "the hostile conduct of the regime."

"Sanctions imposed through the executive order ... will deny the Supreme Leader and the Supreme Leader's office, and those closely affiliated with him and the office, access to key financial resources and support," Trump said.

Read More Show Less