Monday, June 15, 2009

Alternate engine costs are steep: Funding means fewer airplanes available to reach operational capability

Recent actions in Congress are confirming the real costs of funding an alternate engine for the Joint Strike Fighter, and the costs are steep.

Last week at a hearing before the Senate Air Land subcommittee, General Mark Shackelford testified that funding the alternate engine would come at the cost of two to four aircraft in the coming year and 53 aircraft over the next five years. General Shackelford explained that many of those planes are destined for operational testing and training centers and delay in providing them will mean a delay in getting the Joint Strike Fighter to its initial operating capability:

“So as we start to decrement the number of aircraft early on, we start to push out, just from an availability of aircraft to conduct the test work necessary, developmental -- well, operational test, not developmental test but operational test, that will then have an effect upon the initial operational capability time line at the integrated training center. It'll reduce the pilot through-put so the number of pilots we have, and potentially the number of maintainers who are trained on the aircraft through the same process.” General Mark Shackelford, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force, Senate Air Land Subcommittee, June 9, 2009

A June 11 story from Forecast International entitled Pratt & Whitney F135 Engine is Well Along in Development reports that “Hover pit testing on the F135 STOVL variant began in March 2009, having received approval to begin powered lift operations the previous month from the F-35 JPO. That same month the engine surpassed 100 hours of flight-testing, and was touted as a key step in the engine's transition from development to production.” The story also noted that the “STOVL engine had exceeded thrust expectations in tests and provided greater vertical lifting power than required by the F-35B.” (Pratt & Whitney F135 Engine is Well Along in Development, Forecast International, June 11, 2009) contributor and blogger Eric Palmer notes in a June 14 post on the House Air Land subcommittee’s decision to provide $603 million in funding for an alternate engine while cutting two aircraft from production Friday that the F136 engine will be funded by taking money away from F-35 production quantity. This in-turn will raise the unit price of the F-35 aircraft. The program has to stay to plan. No matter how good the aircraft becomes, quantity is the big helper to keep price down. While nothing has been signed yet, for the programs sake, they need to get those 2 aircraft funded.”

The bottom line here is that funding an alternate engine is costing American taxpayers billions of dollars while costing the military badly needed airplanes to make up for a growing fighter gap. All of this is taking place at a time when the current F135 engine is capably powering the Joint Strike Fighter through its testing regime and performing exceptionally well.

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