Can GE finally break through on the F-35 engine at a “critical decision point”?


GE’s first prototype XA100 engine is ready for testing in a test cell in Evendale, Ohio. (General Electric)

FARNBOROUGH AIRSHOW: Since the debut of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, General Electric has attempted to capture the global F-35 engine market, but has been stuck at every turn. Something would go wrong with the Pratt & Whitney F135 design of the plane, and GE’s hopes would rise with the need for a second engine, only to crash again after a few weeks.

Now, more than 20 years after Lockheed Martin’s F-35 design was chosen by the Pentagon to be its fifth-generation fighter, GE is trying again with a new engine – and, at least during a briefing from the July 19 with reporters, expressing cautious optimism about its XA100 design.

The Pentagon stopped funding General Electric’s F136 engine in 2011, leaving the Pratt & Whitney F135 as the only propulsion option for the F-35. However, the F-35 will need an upgraded engine to support impending Block 4 upgrades that will make the jet deadlier, and department officials wonder if another competition between old rivals could lead to a jump. massive forward in engine capability at a price. services can afford.

The F-35 Joint Program Office is expected to make a decision within the next year on whether to move forward with a new engine design for the fighter.

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“From GE’s perspective, we really think this is a critical decision point, and the decision is, ‘What does the future of F-35 propulsion look like? “” said David Tweedie, vice president and general manager of advanced products for GE’s Edison. Works department. “I think the one thing that probably all of industry and most governments will agree on is that something has to be done. The debate is which way are you going?

GE’s claimed stats are impressive: 30% increase in range, 20-40% improvement in kinetic performance, and the ability to double power output for on-board systems, a growing need as the department plays with concepts such as directed energy. systems.

So far, two full-scale engines have been tested, with the Air Force conducting tests at Arnold AFB in Tennessee. These tests should be completed around August, Tweedie said. (While declining to give a specific number of engine hours, he proposed that it was in the “hundreds”.)

Although based on Air Force requirements to meet the needs of the F-35A’s conventional takeoff and landing pattern, Tweedie said GE designed the engine to fit into the carrier variant as well. of the F-35C. Doing this involved considering the impacts of offshore operation, as well as working around the C variant’s large rear hook, but Tweedie says the company is now confident the engine would be capable of running on both variants.

In both cases, he said, the weight of the engine is comparable to that of the F135, at a similar price: “I think we will be relatively comparable to what the customer has to pay now. You are in the same ballpark,” he said. Because the engine was designed with the F-35 in mind, no physical modifications need to be made to make it fit the aircraft, and integration would be done with a software push.

The F-35B STOVL variant, however, offers a more complex challenge. While GE is talking with Rolls-Royce about the B variant to see what might be possible, Tweedie conceded that significant design work would likely be required, given the – quite literal – moving parts involved in this design.

For its part, Pratt & Whitney is offering an upgraded version of the F135 that it says will give the Pentagon the best value for money. The upgraded F135 would be applicable to all variants of the jet from the outset, offering increased thrust and power handling, Pratt noting that services won’t have to figure out the maintenance and commissioning of a completely new engine design – or learn to cope with a mixed fleet of XA100s and F135s. However, if the US military decided the F-35 needed an all-new engine, Pratt developed its own adaptive engine, the XA101, which it could advance as a direct competitor to the XA100.

Three Airflow-Flow-XA100

Representation of the XA100’s three-stream architecture, with each color stream representing a different stream path. (General Electric)

power and reality

GE’s system looks impressive on paper, and yet the question of why the Pentagon would make a change now, after sticking with the F135 for so long, remains perhaps the biggest hurdle for GE to overcome.

Yes, the Block 4 upgrade gives a hook for an engine replacement to occur, but incumbents tend to be successful in such competitions, and there’s no guarantee the JPO will steer even towards a new version of the F135, not to mention an all-new engine design that might not be able to support the F-35B just yet. Also, the XA100 (or a later version of it) would take time to run as a production line, while the F135 line is hot right now.

For Tweedie, there is strong support from the Air Force for an engine upgrade. He acknowledged that the services, the office of the Secretary of Defense and the JPO will all have a say, as will Congress – “there are a lot of stakeholders that need to be aligned no matter what decision is made”, he said – but stressed that the situation is different from what it was ten years ago.

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“A few things that we think have changed. First, the technology is ready. We weren’t ready, nobody was ready in 2014, to start an engineering and manufacturing development program for a breakthrough engine” “We in the industry needed to do the hard work that we have done to prove not only to ourselves, but more importantly, to our government stakeholders that the technology is ready, you can have the capability – and we’re only reaching that point now, because as I said, we only got the first engine running at the very end of 2020. And the results are out.

The other thing that has changed is the threat vector that the Pentagon is now preparing for.

“I think it’s a different world and a different threat space that we see today here in 2022, that we saw in 2014, the national defense strategy, and it’s just that it’s a goal very different. So I think we now have a mature capability that we didn’t have eight years ago, and we now see a different world than we had eight years ago. So I think it’s an alignment of a need and an ability coming together,” he said.

While Tweedie didn’t say it by name, the mention of a “different threat space” would certainly apply to the focus on China. One of the biggest knocks on the F-35 is the question of range, and whether it could actually penetrate deep enough into Chinese airspace in the Pacific with its current fuel limitations; increasing the range by 30%, as GE proposes, could potentially alter the strategic calculations made by military planners.

If GE were to get even one of the F-35 fleets run by the U.S. Air Force or Navy on board, it would open the door to the vast number of global F-35 customers – a game-changing moment. gives for the company. arms of military engines. But, Tweedie quickly conceded that no overseas customer is likely to buy the XA100 unless the United States comes first.

“Realistically…from a funding standpoint, you’ll need one of the US services on board to kick this off. But I think there’s a desire to have as many departments and partners involved in leveraging that capability,” he said.

“We haven’t had any serious discussions with an international partner, because that would probably be going a bit too far.”

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