Supporters of an additional engine for the F-35 like to turn to events in the 1980s that became known as the “Great Engine War” to bolster their argument. It refers to an extraordinary circumstance where the U.S. Air Force re-opened competition to supply engines for F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft after more than 1,000 were already built.
Those pushing Congress to add a second engine for the F-35 Lightning II today – despite strong public opposition from the Air Force, DoD and President Obama – say the Great Engine War proves their point. But does it?
The whole reason for the Great Engine War was a strained relationship between the Air Force & Pratt and Whitney at that time. In fact, Pratt & Whitney officials will be the first to say that that relationship was not handled in the best possible fashion, and that they learned many lessons from the experience, the most important lesson being the critical importance of listening to and working to meet your customer’s needs. As the F100 matured in the F-15, it experienced some performance challenges. The USAF was pushing the state of the art in jet engine technology on a very accelerated schedule and decided the military shouldn’t rely on just one engine at the time. It was the response – or lack thereof – to these issues that set the wheels in motion for the Air Force to pay the bill for developing an alternate engine. The “Great Engine War” was a result of developing an alternate engine, not the purpose.
As for improving the reliability and safety of engines, those improvements have resulted not from the Great Engine War, but from the Component Improvement Program, which was established in about 1973, and is still in existence today. This program not only introduced improved designs, but introduced new tools, materials, processes and methodologies that continued to improve the safety and reliability of all subsequent products.
Finally, regarding cost savings, while it is uncertain whether the development of a second engine for the F-35 will bring total program cost savings, the duplicate costs of developing a second engine and establishing a second logistics program for that engine are undeniable, huge, and unwanted by those who run the program.
Shortly after the end of the Great Engine War (1991), Pratt & Whitney competed for and won the contract to be the sole engine provider for the twin-engine F-22 aircraft. The government found no reason to dual source the engine for the F-22 and Pratt & Whitney has delivered unmatched performance and reliability with the F119. Since the contract was awarded in 1991, and for the last eighteen years since, the F119 has set the new standard for safety and reliability and Pratt & Whitney is applying that proven technology to the F135 with very good results.
The arguments that some fabricate, after the fact, to justify a government funded price competition for the JSF engine are based on circumstances that do not exist in the JSF program today.
The DoD is pleased with the F135’s progress and performance to this point, even after engine testing pointed to design improvements that could be implemented, making the engine even safer.
Perhaps the most jarring difference between the Great Engine War and today’s situation is also the most important to note. Back then, the Air Force was dissatisfied with the performance on the contract and asked Congress to address it.
Today, DoD is satisfied with the performance of the engine and the contract, and officials have actually specifically asked Congress not to add an alternate engine.
Lawmakers should see the real lesson the Great Engine War teaches – listen to the services when considering their needs.