The Great Engine War II: Choice or Monopoly for Global F-35 Fleets?

ENG_F136_Nozzle_Tests.jpg

F136 nozzle tests
(click to view full)

Senate Appropriation Committee says Pentagon should reconsider the F136’s termination, Pentagon unwilling to do so; Background improved; Article reorganized & reformatted; Additional Readings sections updated and upgraded.

July 17/14: Politics. The Senate Appropriations Committee approves a $489.6 billion base FY 2015 budget, plus $59.7 billion in supplemental funding. It includes a section covering the F135 engine, and it’s clear that the members aren’t happy:

“F135 Engine. When the Department of Defense made the decision to terminate the alternate engine for the F–35 Joint Strike Fighter [JSF] in May of 2011, it reassured the Committee that a second engine was no longer necessary as a hedge against the failure of the main JSF engine program. The Department also stated that the financial benefits, such as savings from competition, were small if they existed at all. Since that time, the F135 engine has experienced numerous problems, including the failure of an oil flow management valve and a pre-take-off fire in the past few weeks, both of which grounded the entire fleet of over 100 aircraft. Further, the F135 engine unit cost has not declined as projected. However, the Committee believes that had the alternate engine program continued, competition would have incentivized the F135 engine manufacturer to find creative methods to drive down prices and ensure timely delivery of a high quality product, which is consistent with current Department preference for competition in acquisitions. Therefore, the Committee recommends the Secretary of Defense reassess the value of an alternate engine program creating competition to improve price, quality, and operational availability.”

American budgets still have to be reconciled in conference with the House of Representatives, then signed by the President, so there’s no guarantee that this remains in the FY 2015 defense budget as passed.

The USAF is saying that the recent F135 engine fire is probably a one-off event, based on examination of the other 98 planes. Still, the point about fleet availability has been made. The meltdown also appears to have destroyed a $120 million jet, and killed the F-35’s much-hyped attendance at the world’s top military air expo in Farnborough. Nevertheless, Pentagon acquisition Chief Frank Kendall is saying that “We’re not interested in this point in going back several years and opening up to another competitor.” That has worked before with the F110, but it’s also worth asking if GE and Rolls Royce are still interested, in the wake of their own cancellation (q.v. Dec 2/11). Sources: DID, “FY15 US Defense Budget Finally Complete with War Funding” | Defense News, “Senate Panel to Pentagon: ‘Reassess’ Value of Alternate F-35 Engine” | Foxtrot Alpha, “Axing The F-35’s Alternative Engine Was An Incredibly Stupid Move.”

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Gentlemen, start your…(click to view full) In January 2006 the Pentagon attempted to remove FY 2007 funding from the F-35 Lightning II’s second engine option, the GE/ Rolls Royce F136. As predicted, protests from fellow Tier 1 partner Britain followed at the highest levels of government. Many in the US Congress, meanwhile, were openly skeptical of handing Pratt & Whitney’s F135 engine the keys to the entire F-35 fleet. In the end, the Pentagon’s argument that low program risk made R&D spending on F136 development a waste, failed. Congress re-inserted funding, and F136 development has continued on schedule. Fast forward to the FY 2008 budget. For the second year in a row, the USAF removed funding for the GE/RR F136, arguing that killing the F136 would free up $1.8 billion. Politicians disagreed, and the USA’s GAO auditors backed them up. Funding was reinstated. Again. That process was repeated every year until December 2011, when Pratt & Whitney was finally handed its engine monopoly over the US military’s core fighter jet of the future. The F136 Program F136 concept(click to view larger) The JSF dual engine program had always envisaged a leader-follower strategy for development – it was never a competition […]

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