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This article was Originally Published on Oct 08, 2006 in Volume: 5  Issue: 2

JSF Engine Rumblings

The fight between Pentagon officials and Congress about whether the alternative F136 engine will remain in the Joint Strike Fighter program could end up being a $100 billion decision for the two industry teams competing to build the program engines.

By Rodney L. Pringle

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The fight between Pentagon officials and Congress on whether the alternative F136 engine will remain in the Joint Strike Fighter program could end up being a $100 billion decision for the two industry teams competing to build the program engines. The JSF program could be worth anywhere from $60 billion to $100 billion to sole-source F135 engine-builder Pratt & Whitney if the alternative F136 program is nixed as the Pentagon has moved to do. If the General Electric/Rolls-Royce F136 is dropped, the companies stand to lose tens of billions, not only for the cost of building the engines themselves but on maintenance that will be needed for decades to come. The debate is raging, with some Congressional members promising to step up their efforts to ensure the alternative engine remains a part of the program. In the backdrop of this domestic squabble, some of the U.S.’s closest allies and JSF partners are themselves fuming about not being consulted on top-level joint program decisions as well as the slow pace that technology is being transferred throughout the program.

JSF engine debate

Pentagon officials axed the GE-Rolls Royce F136 engine earlier this year despite industry and political support to keep the program. U.S. Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne told the House Armed Services Committee in March that the decision to drop the F136 engine was “a very tough call because it involves the business industrial base.” He also told the committee that the economics of the decision “won’t be proved out until sometime in the future” and that the move “was a balance between near-term and far-term expenditures.”

However, Wynne hinted that a few extra dollars could keep the program afloat when he told the committee, “if we had an extra dollar, would the [F136] be one place that we would look to spend it? Yes.”

The British government and industry have aligned with GE/Rolls Royce to get the F136 program back into the budget. The British are interested in the bring-back capability of the F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing variant of the aircraft. Also, Rolls Royce supplies the exhaust nozzle and lift fan system for the same variant of the F135, but the F136 could achieve greater sales with all three variants, according to industry sources.

Dr. Liam Fox, a Conservative member of the House of Commons and shadow British secretary of state for defense, said in a recent opinion piece on the topic that the Pentagon’s decision to drop the F136 would also “invariably effect future decisions procurement decisions, with seriously negative consequences that many not be fully appreciated on this side of the Atlantic.”

“There is already growing concern across the British political spectrum that even after our substantial support in Afghanistan, Iraq and the war on terror, the U.S. has not been more forthcoming in allowing us access to vital technology for a project in which we are a major investor and partner,” Fox said. “Without doubt, cancellation of the program would play into the hands of those in Europe who are even now all too willing to suggest the U.S. cannot be relied on and that Britain should look instead to France and European institutions on defense.”

Funding Ploy?

Some industry analysts said the Air Force’s decision to drop the F136 engine is a ploy to get Congress to pour more money into the program and allow the Air Force to shift some of its funds to higher priorities.

Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis for the Teal Group, said the Air Force “went after a politically popular program believing that Congress would make it good.”

“It is a time-honored tradition,” Aboulafia said. “You are seeing the same thing with the C-17. This way, the Air Force gets to keep cash for its highest priorities, mostly fighters, and lets Congress put its money where its mouth is.”

It make sense to have two teams with the ability to produce the JSF engine in order to keep the costs down as well as having some protection in case one of the teams runs into problems producing the engine, Aboulafia said. “It is a system that worked well on the F-16 and it is politically very popular, both here and abroad,” he said. “There is a very small chance that the GE engine will be shut out, both for political reasons and for legitimate programmatic reasons.”

Paul Nisbet, an aerospace analyst for JSA Research, said the Air Force’s decision to drop the F136 engine alternative was “one way to meet their top line budget and just leave it to Congress to break it.” “It is sort of like the C-130 cancellation that was suggested [by them] and then reversed by the Congress,” he said. “They knew that Congress would put it back in.”

One reason why it would be a mistake to cancel the F136 engine is because you’d only have one team producing the engine, which could be a very risky proposition, Nisbet said. Another reason would be the effect the decision would have on GE/Rolls-Royce. “If GE were not funded for this particular effort, they would be going 20 years without another chance to compete [for the engine program] and they would be out of the business for military engines,” Nisbet said. “Do you want an industrial base with only one engine supplier? That is what this decision would do.”

JSF Aircraft

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, produced by Lockheed Martin along with partners Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems, is intended to replace the current generation of strike fighters, particularly the vertical take off and landing (VTOL) Harrier jump jets, the AV-8 Harrier II (U.S.), Harrier GR7/9 (U.K.) and the Sea Harrier (U.K.). It would also replace the conventional A-10 Thunderbolt II, F/A-18 Hornet and the F-16 Fighting Falcon. It is being touted as a multi-role strike fighter that will use stealth technology. Three variants are planned for the aircraft: the Conventional Takeoff and Landing (CTOL) F-35A for the U.S. Air Force; the Short Take-Off Vertical Landing (STOVL) F-35B for the U.S. Marine Corps, the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Royal Navy (RN); and the carrier-based (CV) F-35C for the U.S. Navy.

Partners for the F-35’s system development and demonstration phase include: the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Australia. The F-35 aircraft is expected to be ready for service in 2011, and is scheduled to begin replacing the USAF A-10 Thunderbolt IIs and F-16s in 2011. It is also scheduled to begin replacing the USMC AV-8B Harriers and F/A-18s in 2012.

Recent Engine Developments

In April, Pratt & Whitney was awarded the first production contract for F135 engines to power the F-35 JSF aircraft. The contract, valued at $23 million, is for long lead-time hardware for six engines supporting the first five production F-35 aircraft covering Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP). The contract is the first portion of a full LRIP contract valued at up to $120 million through January 2010, according to the company.

“The entire F135 team is excited as we officially begin the transition from a development engine program to a production engine program, entering a new phase in Pratt & Whitney’s history,” said Bill Gostic, vice president of F135 engine programs for Pratt & Whitney.

The company said the engine program recently achieved more than 5,000 hours of System Development and Demonstration (SDD) ground testing and is on schedule to support the first flight of the F-35 JSF this fall. The 5,000 hours are in addition to the more than 3,600 hours accumulated during the concept demonstration phase of the F-35 program, reflecting the F135’s maturity and reliability, according to Pratt & Whitney.

“With all the extensive SDD ground testing, F119 operational experience and incorporation of new and advanced technologies, Pratt & Whitney expects the F135 engine will enter service and achieve reliability records at least 10 times better than the legendary F100 engine that powers the F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-15 Eagle today,” Gostic said.

Last fall, the U.S. government issued the GE/Rolls-Royce team a $2.4 billion contract to proceed with full-scale development and the production of 14 test engines for the F-35. The contract was applied toward the SDD phase of the F136 engine program. The SDD phase will run through September 2013, the team said. In addition to full-scale development work, the F136 SDD phase includes the production and qualification of 14 engines, seven of which are for ground-test, and six plus one spare for flight-test. The first F136 engine is expected to test in mid-2008, but earlier risk reduction tests are due to begin this year, according to the companies.

In February, the GE/Rolls Royce team resumed testing on the F136 engine. It ran in Short Take-Off Vertical Landing configuration at the GE-Aviation outdoor test facility in Peebles, Ohio and marked the first milestone under the awarded contract.

“We are thrilled to have this engine back on test,” said Jean Lydon-Rodgers of GE-Aviation and president of the Fighter Engine Team. “The team has done an outstanding job, once again, to begin the engine testing on-schedule.”

Tom Hartmann, a Rolls Royce executive and senior vice president for the Fighter Engine Team, said the alternative engine is on schedule and within budget. “This important milestone reinforces the importance of engine competition in controlling cost, timeliness and quality in the Joint Strike Fighter program.”

Congressional Moves

In response to the Pentagon’s budget concerning the F136 engine, House appropriators in March passed a 2006 supplemental bill that included a provision noting continuing concern over the Pentagon’s action to cancel the F136 engine in JSF. “The committee directs that the Department and the Defense and the Air Force continue the execution of these funds as appropriated until Congress has thoroughly reviewed this matter,” the report said. The FY06 defense appropriations act included around $236 million for the engine’s development.

In April, the House Armed Service Committee’s Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee, during the markup of the fiscal 2007 Defense Authorization Act, added $408 million for the JSF alternate engine program. Senate appropriators are looking into the issue as well.

Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), an avid proponent of keeping the F136 engine, told MAT that a cancellation of the alternative engine would hurt the nation’s defense industrial base and that the military would not realize all the traditional benefits that come from competition, including lower risk, better performance, higher readiness, more technology infusion, enhanced contractor responsiveness and reduced costs of ownership.

It would also lead to a reduction in overall engine quality and non-competitive pricing, he said. “Since the U.S. military will be relying on this aircraft well into the future, it is critical to our military and to the safety of our military personnel that we strive for the highest quality engines possible,” DeWine said. “History proves that dual-source competition produces a better, safer, more reliable and less expensive product.”

DeWine said he is optimistic that the Senate Armed Services Committee will include a similar provision to restore funding to the F136 engine alternative when it marks up its version of the 2007 Defense Authorization bill.

“As a U.S. Senator concerned about the safety of all Americans, I will continue to do what is necessary to see that the F136 remains a fully funded program,” he said. “This is the very least we can do to ensure the health of the only fighter program in development today.”

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