Wednesday, October 7, 2009

One F-35 Engine: Right Now and for All the Right Reasons

“An opportunity to truly reform the way we do business.”

That’s what Defense Secretary Robert Gates said back on April 6 when he unveiled his budget recommendations and suggested sweeping changes to a number of acquisition programs. And one month later, President Obama suggested the same strategy of saving money by eliminating unnecessary defense programs that do nothing to keep us safe. Since then, both President Obama and Secretary Gates on multiple occasions have repeated their belief that there is no business case for the alternate engine for the Joint Strike Fighter, and that continuing to fund it takes precious scarce resources away from initiatives that actually keep us safer.

Though Congress is still wrangling with some of the paths Gates charted in his briefing, the recommendations shook the foundations of many Department of Defense programs and signaled a sea change in how the department does business. The Secretary has made it clear that ending the alternate engine program for the F-35 fits hand-in-glove with his new vision.

Some of the other defense programs at risk of cancellation could lay some claim towards meeting some national strategic or defense goals not currently being met. However, the alternate engine is the only one that simply repeats an existing capability which has already been proven by the Pratt & Whitney F135, while the alternate engine lags years behind in development.

The bottom line remains absolutely clear: the F135 engine performs the task as assigned, continues to cost less and less based on Pratt & Whitney’s proven cost reduction on the F119 engine powering the F-22, supports thousands of U.S. jobs as opposed to sending many of them overseas, has more than 12,000 test hours under its belt, and is derived from the proven F119 engine that has flown more than 125,000 operational hours on the F-22.

By comparison, the alternate engine offers a brand new engine design still facing years of challenging testing ahead and billions in development costs still to be funded. The alternate engine is not based on a proven engine, so there is no significant development, test or experience on the design. Putting an unproven engine on a single-engine fighter in high rate production is extremely risky. An alternate engine also adds complexity by requiring duplicate maintenance lines and procedures. Not only does this duplication impact military readiness, it will cost taxpayers billion of dollars. An alternate engine won’t lower costs because the government pays the costs to develop both engines. Taxpayers will also pay the costs for two sets of parts, two production and maintenance lines, and additional personnel and training.

Single sourcing engines on major airframes has been the norm for the past two decades. There is no alternate engine for the F-22, the F/A-18 or the Black Hawk military helicopter. (The F/A-18 and Black Hawk engines are made by GE.) GE is the sole-source provider of the almost 10,000 T700 engines both fielded and on order, powering nearly 5,000 current and future Blackhawks and Apache helicopters.

Moreover, under the current economic pressure, the F-35 Joint Program Office estimates that the $4-5 billion wasted on an alternative engine could put 50-80 F-35 aircraft at risk unnecessarily, aircraft that the military needs to ensure our security and national defense.

It’s no wonder that the opposition to the alternate engine has been uniform for years across two administrations – the military services oppose it, the DoD opposes it, and two consecutive presidents of the United States have opposed it.

Give us your take on this – with a massive reorganization of defense programs underway and real strategic programs battling for every dollar, does it make sense to waste billions on an unneeded alternate engine?

-- Eagleblogger

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