Congress must get the right effort from the F-35 engine

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Modernization is a necessary part of any defense program, especially as our foreign adversaries like China and Russia continue to improve their military capabilities. One of the main programs targeted by Congress for modernization is the F-35 Lightning II engine.

Such efforts must ensure efficiency, strengthen national security, and produce the best results for U.S. taxpayers. The measures taken by the current government to finance an alternative engine for the F-35 fighter will not achieve these results, especially not at mid-program, quite the contrary.

Adaptive Engine Transition Program

The F-35 comes in three versions: the F-35A for conventional take-off and landing, used by the Air Force; the F-35B for short take-off and vertical landing, used by the Marines; and the F-35C for catapult-assisted take-off but recovery stopped, used by the Navy.

All three versions use the same Pratt & Whitney (P&W) F135 engine, reducing costs and increasing availability through interoperability, streamlined logistics and a common supplier base.

To improve performance and reduce costs, some in Congress have urged spending billions of dollars (this is an important point I will come back to) to acquire an entirely different engine, the Adaptive Engine Transition Program.

An F-35A Lightning II moves to refuel July 13, 2016 during a flight between the United Kingdom and the United States. Image: US Air Force / Sgt. Madelyn Brown

Motor competition

Some in Congress cite the success of the “Great Motor Wars” of the 1980s and 1990s as an example of properly conducted motor competition.

This competition pitted P&W against a self-funded effort (here’s the point I mentioned earlier – no government money was spent on development) General Electric (GE) to provide engines for the F-15 and F- fighters. 16. The only objective of the competition was not to reduce costs but to acquire more reliable engines.

As shown in the table below from the Air Force Safety Center, Class A incident rates dropped sharply during the “engine wars” and the Air Force improved reliability.

Class A accident rate per 100,000 flight hours for USAF combatants

Airplane Accident rate 1980 Accident rate 1980 Average annual rate of incidents over the lifetime
F-15 4.57 1.94 4.57
F 16 18.65 2.59 8.30
F-35 n / A n / A 0.15

According to Air Force Safety Center, Class A incident caused more than $ 2 million in damage ($ 1 million before fiscal 2010), death or permanent disability.

Now let’s take a look at the four main factors in determining which F-35 engine is the most suitable for going forward.

Reliability

As the table shows, the F135 engine has no reliability issue. The rate of Class A incidents is miniscule – on average only 0.15 incidents per year. There is no data for GE’s F136 since it has never flown in a USAF fighter.

Reliability? Advantage F135.

Cost

One of the most successful aspects of the F-35 is the F135 engine program. The average cost of the F135 has been reduced by more than 50 percent since the first production batch of engines. This translated into engine savings estimated at $ 8.1 billion over the life of the program.

The development of the proposed F136 engine would be funded by the government to the tune of billions of dollars. Due to design variations in the three F-35 models, the F136 cannot be used in the B or C models of the F-35 – only the A model.

F-35A Lightning II
An F-35A Lightning II at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. Photo: Staff Sgt. Siuta B. Ika / US Air Fore

Without the benefit of buying in quantity, cost savings are very unlikely due to reduced economies of scale, double logistics trains, and longer training and learning curves.

Cost? Advantage F135.

Performance

The 135 engine is rated at over 43,000 pounds of thrust, and the proposed upgraded engine package would increase that thrust to over 47,000 pounds. General Electric’s F136 engine is rated at over 40,000 pounds of thrust.

Performance? Advantage F135.

Future growth

The Lightning II – including its engine – is designed for changing environments and advancing enemy threats. The F135 incorporates a modular design and digital architecture, allowing for quick and easy upgrades. The Enhanced Engine Package will certainly help.

Future growth? Advantage F135.

F-35 engine modernization effort

So yes, Congress should fund an effort to modernize the F-35 engine – but it has to fund the right one. Spending billions of additional taxpayer dollars to build a second engine from scratch seems pointless and counterproductive, especially when that replacement engine would only be used by the Air Force and not by the Navy and Marines.

Lieutenant general Eric fick, the executive officer of the F-35 program, noted that only the Air Force would be responsible for paying for it. And as he told reporters in September, given the demands of different departments, putting new program engines “on any part of the F-35 fleet would mean at least two power plants for the fleet to manage, and maybe three.”

He is absolutely right to point out these realities. Hopefully Congress is listening.


Head Scott VadnaisScott Vadnais is a retired US Air Force officer and former head of the press service at US Air Forces Headquarters in Europe. He supported the USAF Engine System Program Office during active duty and is a former Senior Strategic Planner with General Dynamics. Neither he, nor any member of his family, has a financial stake in the parties involved in the effort to modernize the F-35 engine.


The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflectct the editorial position of The Defense Post.

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