WASHINGTON – The F-35 joint program office is eyeing the middle of the next decade for when major upgrades to the engines on the joint strike fighter can proceed.
Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, who heads the JPO head, said at last week's Air Force Association conference that the "mid-2020s" is when the power plant on the joint strike fighter could be refreshed, whether through improvements to the Pratt & Whitney F135 design currently used or through a new engine design from another competitor.
"I would expect ... that somewhere in the mid-2020s much of the work being done in the labs right now with our industry partners will find its way onto the F-35," Bogdan told an audience Sept. 21. "Whether it finds its way onto the F-35 in the current engine or some modified engine remains to be seen, but we do fully expect in the mid-20s to include some advanced technologies on engines."
The Air Force is currently funding the early stages of the Adaptive Engine Transition Program (AETP) competition, with both Pratt and General Electric Aviation participating. The goal of AETP is to see if the companies can successfully add a third stream of air inside the engine. The program's goal is to "demonstrate 25 percent improved fuel efficiency, 10 percent increased thrust, and significantly improved thermal management," according to an Air Force statement.
Both companies received contracts worth $1.01 billion over the summer to fund the research under AETP, with a period of performance ending in September 2021.
While the AETP competition will likely be the source of the F-35 power plant of the future, its official focus is whatever the service decides to do with the so-called "sixth generation" fighter development. Theoretically, engine improvements could also be rolled into the B-21 Raider bomber, which is expected to enter production by the mid-2020s. Pratt & Whitney is the engine supplier on the program; and although neither they nor Northrop Grumman, the prime on the B-21, have said what engine is being used, speculation is that some form of the F135 engine will power the bomber.
Bogdan made it clear it is too early to make any decisions about how engine improvements could be rolled into the F-35 program.
"We have to take a look and see if they are 1) applicable and can be integrated into the F-35, and 2) the right time and place to do that," Bogdan said. "A lot of that comes from the warfighter telling us what he or she needs and wants on the airplane, but relative to engine technology, just like sensor technology, just like materials technology, engine technology is moving along also. And there is a lot of work being done in the labs right now to improve the range [and] capability of our engines, the thrust capability on the size and weight of our engines."
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.