Perhaps the adage that March “comes in like a lion” applies to more than just weather. That’s certainly what happened the week of March 8. Seemingly overnight, the F-35 engine debate heated up, driven by significant budgetary and programmatic scrutiny.
The week began with a Monday, March 8th issue brief from Dr. Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, who encapsulated the issue of alternate F-35 engine funding by reinforcing at least five key points. First, $2.9 billion will be needed in the near term to develop the alternative F136 engine, while predicted savings over the long term are based on highly optimistic assumptions that may never pan out. Second, most modern military aircraft are developed with just one engine supplier and fleet-wide groundings almost never occur. Third, the still nascent F136 is the more likely of the two engines to suffer a significant problem, based on its protracted development and troubled performance to date. Fourth, two engines won’t bolster reliability because operations, maintenance and even future technology improvement funds would be split between two incompatible systems. Lastly, neither the taxpayer nor the F-35 customers would be well served to support two supply chains, when one has clearly outperformed the latter.
This last point takes us to a couple of mid-week articles that initially reported some inaccurate cost figures for the F135. The bottom line: there are no new cost overruns on the F135 engine, and any additional expenses are tied to ongoing restructuring of the entire F-35 program. The federal government continues to express confidence in Pratt & Whitney’s cost reduction strategy, which is illustrated by an 11% drop in the LRIP-4 contract offering. Additional double-digit cost reductions are projected for future lots as well.
These proven savings stand in start contrast to the revisionist claims of those supporting a repeat of the “Great Engine War” of the 1980s. In a February 23rd memo to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep Ike Skelton, Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn wrote, “While much has been made of this example, the facts tell a more nuanced and inconclusive story. There were only minimal reductions in the acquisition unit cost price of the engines purchased for the F-15 and F-16 programs. Accordingly, it is difficult to cite this example to justify substantial savings due to competition.”
During a Wednesday, March 12th press conference, Undersecretary of Defense Ashton Carter reiterated the Defense Department’s concern regarding “hypothesized savings” for the F136 engine based on “some very optimistic assumptions that we don't think it is reasonable to accept.” And if recouping sunk costs doesn’t hold much allure, neither does the prospect of a second engine on technical grounds.
"We are not in the 1980s any longer, where high-performance engines had suspect reliability," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz said. And he reiterated that only the U.S. Air Force is likely to buy from both engine manufacturers. "The Navy is not going to have two engines aboard ship," he said. "Our international partners are not going to have two engines. So the reality is that if we have an alternate engine and if there is a mandate for that, that obligation will ride primarily on the Air Force."
A disadvantageous “directed buy” scenario outlined by Undersecretary Carter and General Schwartz brings us to Gen. (Ret.) John Michael Loh, former commander of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command. In a Defense News editorial published on March 15th, General Loh brought up yet another important issue, stating “Air Combat Command will not receive its first operational F-35s with alternate engines until 2017. In my experience, putting an immature engine on a single engine fighter in high-rate production will result in many unnecessary, perhaps fatal, accidents while the new engine plods through its inevitable infant mortality phase.”
Above and beyond any potential safety of flight issues is the historical fact that two engines impact every facet of operations. “My firsthand experience with the F-16, after the introduction of the alternate engine, showed it limited operational flexibility significantly,” wrote General Loh. “It restricted decisions on basing because all F-16s at a base had to have the same engine, and it limited choices for deploying units for the same reason. Maintenance training and logistics support were more costly and complex.”