WASHINGTON — The US Air Force is keeping an eye on options to re-engine its B-52 bombers, including the creation of a public-private partnership with an industry supplier, a top service official said.

Lt. Gen. Mike Holmes, deputy chief of staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements, told reporters during a Feb. 6 event that the service is looking to get "creative" on potential power plant replacements for the aging bomber fleet. Each B-52 flies on eight Pratt & Whitney TF33-P-3/103 turbofan engines, an old and inefficient design produced between late 1950s and 1980s.

"To go out and buy new engines for the B-52, you'd have a really hard time fitting that into our program," Holmes acknowledged. "But that's why we're interested in a public-private partnership, which would be a different way to amortize those engines over time and pay for them in the savings that they actually generate, instead of paying for them out of savings that you hope for."

The It's a clever idea, and one which would allow the service to get new engines onboard without breaking the budget at a time when many programs with greater visibility are being squeezed. However, as Holmes noted, there are some non-budgetary hurdles must be crossed to cross before such an agreement could be put into place.

"There are contractor proposals to do some public-private partnerships, kind of creative ways, to get new engines on the airplane," Holmes said. "We have to work through policy and legal and legislative hurdles to be able to do that.

"The idea is in a public-private partnership, somebody funds the engine and then we pay them back over time out of the fuel savings, which are generated out of the new engines," he continued. "Our government has a way to do that with [military construction] facilities. We don't have a way to do that with airplanes, and we are exploring whether there are alternative ways that would let us do that."

In October, Global Strike Command chief Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson told reporters he had people "looking at" the possibility of installing new engines on the bomber fleet, which is expected to operate until 2040.

"Look at what the airline industry is doing — they're all re-engining," Wilson said at the time. "Why? Because it saves you a lot of money. If there is a commercially available engine which can give a 25-30 percent increase in either range or loiter, you have my attention."

Analysts have identified the Pratt PW2000 engine, known as the F117 on military aircraft, as a potential replacement. That engine is used on the 757 commercial jet, which ended production about a decade ago, and the C-17 military cargo plane, which ends production this year.

Speaking the day before Holmes, Bennett Croswell, the head of Pratt's military engines unit, told reporters his company has made "some very attractive offerings" to the Air Force.

Croswell said that while the F117 may be logical, in the past there were issues with control authority of the plane that which could have required a re-wing to mount the more powerful engines. That problem has been solved, he said, and the company now has offerings that which can keep the eight-engine configuration.

"I think there it's going to just be affordability," Croswell said of the chances a program moves forward. "There would be significant savings in terms of the fuel economy of the engines… we have some attractive options for the Air Force to consider."

If a B-52 engine program does go up for bid, it is possible General Electric and Rolls-Royce would likely investigate entering the competition.

Twitter: @AaronMehta

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.

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