Reports: Cuts on the way to F-35 JSF R&D, Engine Programs
InsideDefense.com reports that US House & Senate conferees agreed to a final version of an FY 2006 defense spending bill that reduces the multinational F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program’s funding request by $200 million, including $108 million in cuts to research, development, testing and engineering (RDT&E) funding. The US Air Force had asked for $2.6 billion, including $200 million to fund long-lead items for the purchase of five aircraft in FY 2007. The House spending bill had fully funded the $2.4 billion RDT&E request, but the Senate plan would have cut that by $270 million.
In the end, the result was closer to the Senate’s plan, and $30 million was also cut from the long-lead items budget. As DID reports below, the F-35’s dual-engine program may also be in question, a development that could have far-reaching ramifications for the JSF program. The contemplated cuts may even have ramifications for the USA’s F-22 Raptor program.
With respect to the RDT&E cuts, the Senate Appropriations Committee had said in a September 2005 report that:
“The program is still redesigning the three JSF variants (F-35A Air Force; F-35B STOVL for Marines, British, Italians; F-35C carrier-based) and is examining the need for changes in the software development and flight test programs to make them more executable,” the Senate panel’s September report notes. “Until the redesign efforts are complete, the committee is not committed to significant increases in program funding for system development.”
In response, the Pentagon complained that reducing RDT&E at this stage would create a spike in F-35 development and production costs and would trigger a delay in the three service’s scheduled milestone decisions and operational capability with the new aircraft.
Meanwhile, other reports have circulated that the Pentagon may wish to cut one of the F-35’s variants entirely, in order to save on development and tooling costs. Since the F-35B has no real substitute as an airpower option for the US Marines on America’s LHA/LHD ships, is the only future fighter option for Italian, Spanish, and Thai carriers, and is also Tier One JSF partner Britain’s planned choice for the Royal Navy, it cannot be touched. That leaves the options of either cutting the Air Force F-35A in favour of the larger, longer-range and carrier-capable F-35C, or cutting the F-35C and leaving the US Navy to operate a fighter mix of F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets & short-range F-35B STOVL (Short Take-Off, Vertical Landing) fighters.
The catch is that the F-35C is more expensive at around $60 million per plane, rather than $45 million. It is also further behind in its development. Cutting the F-35A could make the F-35 unattractive to other program participants (Australia, Canada, Denmark, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey), who had counted on lower costs and earlier delivery.
The F-35C’s higher price would also make for rougher sledding in export markets, many of whom aren’t looking for an aircraft in the $60+ million category. Given the global export market’s importance to the F-35’s overall business case and prospects, this is not a change to undertake lightly, either.
On the other hand, cutting the F-35C may leave allies and export customers happy, but it would would reduce the US Navy’s aerial strike range and capabilities. This would be felt especially keenly in high threat situations, where the F-35’s ultra-advanced sensors, cutting-edge electronics, and affordable stealth make it significantly more survivable against ground and air threats than the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet.
The final status of the F-35 program budget will be fully public soon, and the fate of the F-35 variants rests in the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review as well as subsequent Congresional approvals. Meanwhile, Military.com’s newsstand has a publicly-available version of the InsideDefense.com article that goes into more details re: the F-35 JSF program’s FY 2006 budget.
Dual Engine Component Headed for Flameout?
Nor are those the only potential changes to the F-35 program. The Lexington Institute in Washington, DC reports that policymakers want to terminate development of the Joint Strike Fighter’s dual-engine program, under which F-35s could be shipped with either the current F135 engine by United Technologies subsidiary Pratt & Whitney, or use the GE/Rolls Royce F136 now in development. Both engines would come in a regular version, and a modified STOVL (Short Take-Off, Vertical Landing) version for the F-35B.
The Lockheed F-16, which currently flies around the world with either P&W’s F100 or GE’s F110 engines, is an illustrative example of how a program like this can work. The strategy creates more competition, sustains the industrial base by leveraging a popular fighter program two ways, and may lead to technology improvements as well (GE’s F110 has higher power output than the F100). Although the P&W F100 was the F-16’s original engine, most USAF F-16s currently carry the GE F110, as will Korea’s F-15K Strike Eagles.
The JSF engine program moves would not be part of the FY 2006 budget, but would be part of the Pentagon’s requests for FY 2007, due to be tabled in February 2006. If the proposal passes, and P&W’s simplified F-135 derivative of the F-22 Raptor’s F119 engine ends up getting the contract for all F-35 planes, several consequences would follow.
One consequence would be a major win for United Technologies, as it would be the engine supplier for the backbone of the US tactical fighter fleet and a potential export star. They would also inherit a very lucrative aftermarket of spare parts and support lasting until 2050 at least, and possibly beyond.
On the flip side, there’s GE. The Lexington Institute believes that competitor GE probably would exit the tactical engine business at that point, in line with its famous “#1, #2, or gone” approach. This would, of course, reduce industry competition and shrink the US defense industrial base even further. DID would point out that GE would still have the contract for the F414 engine in the Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornets, but a spinoff and sale of its fighter engine assets to focus on the helicopter and commercial engine businesses would not be unthinkable.
Then there are the consequences for the JSF program as a whole. Britain has invested $2 billion in the F-35 as the only other Tier One partner, and the participation of Rolls Royce with GE in the aircraft’s F136 engine is an important industrial spinoff. With the UK’s F-35 participation already in question due to technology transfer issues, and under political attack from some quarters, dealing a serious blow to the program’s industrial spinoff potential for the UK risks driving Britain from the program.
A British exit would be a major blow, increasing the F-35’s per-plane costs, lowering its perceived attractiveness abroad, and calling the ongoing participation of other partners like Norway, Denmark, The Netherlands, Italy, et. al. into serious question.
An Opportunity for the F-22?
Meanwhile, InsideDefense.com reports that the defense appropriations conferees agreed to a Pentagon plan to purchase 24 F-22A Raptors in FY 2006. Legislators are looking at extending F-22 production in order to keep the lines running and cover any delays in the F-35 JSF program. They’re also directing the Pentagon to submit several reports about the next-generation fighter program next year, including one covering worries about the effect of rising titanium costs on the aircraft. The Military.com newsstand version of the article has more details.
- Ripple effects from the proposed F136 engine cancellation are beginning. Concern has been expressed directly from the Prime Minister himself, as well as from ministerial and opposition sources. Meanwhile, Defence Procurement Minister Lord Drayson has gone from telling the Parliamentary Defense Committee a few short months ago that all would be well to stating that Britain must have a “Plan B” re: the JSF.
- In the end, Congress re-inserted $340 million of funding for the F136 into the FY 2007 defense budget, and Britain took the next step by signing the F-35 Production MoU in December 2006.