Monday, November 23, 2009

Truth and Consequences

Proponents of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter received another scare recently when $232 million in funding for vital tooling was placed in jeopardy as part of ongoing federal budget negotiations. While this funding will probably be restored, it could have severely and artificially compromised future production F-35 capacity, which in turn would raise unit costs of the aircraft and slow fighter deliveries to the U.S. and especially its allies.

Why raise an issue that may be on the road to being solved? Because it’s emblematic of the “zero sum” reality inherent in the budgeting process. There is no shortage of priorities, including national defense, yet hundreds of millions of dollars may be wasted on funding an unwanted, unnecessary, under performing alternate engine, in turn, potentially compromising 50-80 airframes, a significant number especially at a relatively early stage in the aircraft’s marketing life.

In light of the latest F136 engine failure and resultant ceasing of all testing, the fourth engine incident in just 52 test hours, the F136 team will be unable to resume testing until early 2010. This means that production F136 engines will not commence delivery in 2012, thus dispensing with the current baseline schedule and necessitating a new (and further elongated) path forward. It has been reported that the alternate engine team is working on a replan for their engine.

Program slippage on this scale is no academic exercise; it will affect nearly every aspect of the F-35, from cost to risk mitigation. And international customers, who play a crucial role in lowering overall unit costs for everyone including the American taxpayer, will have to wait even longer to have an option in propulsion selection.

Full competition between the F135 and F136, the whole premise for having two engines in the first place, will now slip to 2016 deliveries. And even that timeline presupposes that the root causes of multiple F136 test failures can be fully ameliorated without a fundamental redesign and that they will sustain no additional significant test failures in the months and years ahead. The jury is still out.

The F135 continues to perform extremely well, successfully powering the first flight of Lockheed Martin’s AF-1, the first production representative CTOL airplane to fly. The F135 engines also successfully powered BF-1 from Lockheed Martin’s facility in Fort Worth, Texas across country to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland for continuation of flight test. The F135 propulsion system is also poised to perform the first in-flight STOVL conversion very soon.

President Barack Obama has stated repeatedly that he would veto the federal defense budget bill if F136 funding impacts F-35 acquisition. Surely this is now beyond the shadow of doubt. Though the authorization bill has passed, President Obama could veto the appropriations bill, should it contain wasteful F136 funding.

The F-35 is an official program of record. It shows every sign of being an extremely successful fighter, serving three U.S. armed forces and potentially dozens of allies worldwide. Why some in Congress would choose to fund the F136 engine that falls farther behind the proven reliable F135 seemingly by the day is simply beyond us.

Some might say that all engines go through a difficult gestation. But it’s worth reiterating that during a similar 12-month period to the F136’s four failures in 52 hours, the F135 accumulated 1133 hours with no failures. Try as some might to obfuscate, these facts remain the same.

-- Eagleblogger

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

GE, Rolls F-35 engine deliveries said delayed

Reuters writes in an exclusive piece about the problems that GE is having with their engine and about how the F136 engine will be delayed for one year.

By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Deliveries of an alternate F-35 fighter engine being built by General Electric Co (GE.N) and Rolls-Royce Group PLC (RR.L) will be delayed by one year, a source familiar with the program said on Tuesday.

That may be bad news for the team, which is fighting to maintain funding for the second engine for the $300 billion Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) F-35 fighter despite opposition by the White House and Pentagon. In October, the GE-Rolls team was forced to halt testing of its developmental engine until January 2010 when a loose nut damaged turbine blades.

"The entire F136 delivery plan has slipped a year," the source, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told Reuters.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Tale of (Not Quite) Two Engines

As the FY10 budget battle continues on Capitol Hill, in the White House and throughout numerous federal agencies, it is worth a few moments of reflection to consider the truly monumental task at hand. Urgent funding for two wars, economic stimulus, health care reform, a looming Baby Boomer demographic tsunami, record unemployment, decreasing tax revenue, a weak dollar, resurgent adversaries across the globe and myriad other challenges constitute the greatest threat to fiscal stability in nearly a century.

Wise legislators like Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) understand that some sacrifices, desperately needed now and in the future, will have to come from non-essential, big-ticket military programs. During a late-October press breakfast, he candidly admitted, “The bottom line is there is going to be significant pressure on defense budgets going forward.”

Surely the $560 million proposed for the F136 alternate engine in FY10 alone could be better spent elsewhere. After all, these funds, as well as the billions already spent, represent just a fraction of what it will really cost over the next five years to field the F136.

It has been reported recently that during nine months of system development and demonstration, the F136 has managed just over 50 hours of testing and has suffered four known failures; that’s one failure for every dozen hours of test. The F136 team likes to tout having hundreds of hours of accomplished testing….unfortunately, that testing was pre SDD and was not accomplished with the same engine now facing so many setbacks.

Over a comparable length of SDD time, Pratt & Whitney’s F135 logged more than 700 hours with no failures. To date, those numbers stand at 12,800 hours and just four incidents which caused a delay in testing.

One of the F135 engines was recently disassembled after 2,500 cycles, equaling eight years of life, and it looked pristine, (if only I could share the photos with you). Meanwhile, another F135 engine recently logged more than 38 continuous hours of altitude qualification testing, the longest run of its type yet.

The contrast between the two programs couldn’t be starker. While the F135’s logbook grows by the day, it is reported that F136 test slots at the U.S. Air Force’s Arnold Engineering Development Center will go unused for the next several months.

When President Barack Obama signed the defense authorization bill on October 28, he stated, "This bill isn't perfect. There is still more waste we need to cut. There are still more fights we need to win."

We agree with him, Defense Secretary Gates and others. Proposed funding for a would-be second engine is not only unaffordable, but will simply prolong an increasingly uncompetitive alternative that ironically means less choice for American taxpayers.

-- Eagleblogger

Monday, November 2, 2009

Two Engines Can Mean Twice the Problems, Costs

Defense analyst Loren Thompson writes in a new post on his Early Warning blog that recent problems with the alternate engine highlight the fact that two engines can mean twice the problems and additional costs:
This issue underscores a logical flaw in the case for an alternate engine. Backers argue that having a second engine is insurance against a design flaw in the primary powerplant being built by Pratt & Whitney for the single-engine F-35 fighter. But that reasoning works both ways -- add a second engine to the mix, and you've doubled the potential for design issues, just like you've doubled the cost of developing engines by having to fund two design teams and two development programs. With several billion dollars remaining to be spent before the alternate engine joins the fleet, there is still time to rethink whether a second engine is really needed. The Pentagon says one engine is enough.
Full post is here.

Why 70% Doesn’t Even Come Close

Proponents of the unnecessary F136 alternative engine, including some U.S. Senators, like to say that the alternate engine is 70% complete and therefore worthy of continued funding.

But that figure, if it’s even accurate, applies just to the initial system development and demonstration (SDD) phase, a milestone met by Pratt & Whitney’s F135 engine roughly five years ago. Traditionally, less than half the money needed to field a new engine is spent during SDD. As if the $600 million wasted annually on a delayed, duplicative engine isn’t bad enough, consider that a far larger sum of money ($4-5 billion according to Pentagon and other independent estimates) will still be required to bring the alternate engine to production, costs which include creating duplicative test and production facilities, not to mention an entire supply chain.

Even the most optimistic of F136 scenarios ultimately means a competitive lot wouldn’t be awarded until at least 2013, with deliveries starting in 2015. How much of the taxpayers’ money will Congress continue to waste on an engine with no proven history or legacy of success and a design started from a blank sheet of paper? The F135 engine was built on the proven legacy of the Pratt & Whitney F119 engine, powering the U.S. Air Force F-22 fleet. The F119 is the most successful military fighter engine ever fielded and has accumulated 125,000 operational flight hours. That is the pedigree of the F135. The F136 alternate engine has no pedigree, and introducing a new, unproven backup engine just adds extra costs with no benefit to reliability. In fact, it increases risk.

Supporters of the backup engine have stood by the F136 on the very issue of competition despite numerous reports indicating that competition offers no guaranteed cost savings but rather will cause additional expense. How many additional billions of dollars must be spent between now and the time the F136 is even ready to compete? While alternate engine proponents--- through smoke and mirror messaging--- would like us to believe that the money already invested in the backup engine represents 70% of what is needed to make the alternate engine a reality, the truth is that their “70% complete” statement is both a misrepresentation of facts and misleading. The alternate engine is not 70% complete. There is still a very long and expensive development and test road ahead for the alternate engine, and it is littered with challenges which the program must overcome. Pratt & Whitney has been travelling that road for the past eight years. And with more than 12,800 hours, the F135 engine is in production and is the only engine powering the F-35 flight test program, successful flight after successful flight.

President Obama, Secretary Gates and many members of Congress have already rightfully concluded that the “new math” just doesn’t add up.

-- Eagleblogger