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Experts: Don't Bet on Revival of 2nd F-35 Engine

Jul. 20, 2014 - 02:32PM   |  
A US Senate panel is calling on Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to reassess the value of an alternate power plant, such as the General Electric-Rolls-Royce F136 pictured here, for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
A US Senate panel is calling on Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to reassess the value of an alternate power plant, such as the General Electric-Rolls-Royce F136 pictured here, for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. (US Air Force)
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WASHINGTON AND FARNBOROUGH, ENGLAND — The revival of the Pentagon’s storied F-35 alternative engine program is unlikely despite a US Senate panel raising that possibility, experts say.

Finding billions of dollars for such an effort within the Pentagon’s already capped budget would prove a herculean task, particularly if sequestration caps return in 2016, these experts say. And even if the caps are removed through a long- or short-term congressional budget deal, the alternate F-35 power plant could threaten funding of another Defense Department engine program.

“This may be one time when sequestration imposes a needed discipline on the budgeting process,” said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute and a consultant to defense firms. “To restart the alternate engine program, legislators would have to find billions of dollars.”

The Obama administration, led by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, lobbied hard to kill the second engine program in 2011, so it would not support legislation to revive the program, Thompson said.

DoD said the F-35 prime engine, built by Pratt & Whitney, would suffice and save DoD billions of dollars needed to field a second engine. Advocates of the alternate power plant, built by a GE and Rolls-Royce team, said a second engine is necessary to generate competition and drive down the price.

These advocates also say it is necessary should a major problem arise with one of the engines, thus grounding the fleet of thousands of planned F-35s.

A June 23 engine fire on an Air Force F-35 attempting to take off subsequently grounded all F-35s for more than two weeks. The jets were cleared for restricted flight operations last week, but Pentagon officials opted not to send the aircraft to its scheduled European debut at the Farnborough International Airshow in England.

In a report issued last week, the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee “recommends” senior Pentagon officials “reassess the value of an alternate engine program creating competition to improve price, quality and operational availability.”

The panel’s report on the Pentagon 2015 spending bill states that members believe “that had the alternate engine program continued, competition would have incentivized [Pratt & Whitney] 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.”

The GE-Rolls-Royce Fighter Engine Team had no comment on the Senate recommendation.

One possible bill payer, should the second engine program return, could be the Air force’s Adaptive Engine Technology Development program, in which the Pentagon plans to invest $1 billion between 2016 and 2019, some experts say. That effort is focused on developing a “sixth-generation” fighter engine that could provide better fuel-burn rates. But the high-performance engine program is already at risk, as DoD officials have said they would cancel the effort if sequestration returns in 2016.

But even if the program is revived in 2015 or 2016, generating competition would be difficult considering the GE-Rolls-Royce F136 program has been stalled since 2011.

“The prospects for having an engine competition anytime soon are zero,” Thompson said.

Frank Kendall, Pentagon acquisition executive, said on July 14 he had no desire to reopen the competition.

“Overall we’re confident in the design,” he said. “We’re still in development, we still have work to do, [largely] on the margins, but overall we’re confident. We’re not interested ... in going back several years and opening up to another competitor.”

Bennett Crosswell, who heads Pratt’s military division, said he wasn’t worried about the Senate report language.

“I’ll let others decide how they want to treat this,” he said. “I don’t even think about it. I just think about meeting the requirements of our customers. I know it sounds kind of corny, but truly, that’s what we’re focused on.”

The largest reason a new engine may not rise to challenge Pratt? Spending caps that would require something else within the Pentagon’s annual budget to be cut. Without an obvious offset, this competition may just be a dream.

“The debate about the alternate fighter engine had little to do with rigorous analysis and technical assessments, and more to do with partisan and regional politics,” Richard Aboulafia, a Teal Group analyst, wrote in an email. “Thus, even though this incident would seem to help make the argument for a second engine as an insurance policy for the program, it won’t matter very much if all the politicians involved continue to follow a rigid ideological or local script.”

The culprit behind the fire, which claimed the fighter designated AF-27, was a part of the engine known as the integrally bladed rotor (IBR). There are multiple IBRs in each F135 engine, but this particular one was located in the fan section of the engine.

The blade is designed to rub against the shell of the engine as part of normal operation, but this part rubbed too much — Kendall described it as “excessive” rubbing — leading to the fire.

“I don’t think the engine fire is a sign of a problem that will derail the program, especially since it was the first such incident in 25,000 hours of time on its engines,” said Mark Gunzinger, a former DoD official and now an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.

Although Pentagon officials indicated they believe the issue is a one-off and not a fleetwide issue, they are not taking chances. As part of the return to flight issued on July 15, F-35 engines must be inspected after every three hours of use.

Crosswell said his company is ready to assist the government in sections of the engines going forward.

This is the second IBR-related engine issue to crop up in the past eight months. A test engine was heavily damaged in December after an IBR blew after 2,200 hours of testing, a significant amount roughly equivalent to nine years of service. ■

Christopher P. Cavas in Washington contributed to this report.

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