Part 2 of 3: Risk
Following competition, the next most commonly heard refrain from the F136 camp constitutes myth number two: that a single engine supplier for the F-35 presents too much risk to the warfighter.
Supporters of the duplicative alternate engine argue that a second engine is necessary to mitigate the threat of a fleet-wide grounding. This is nothing but a scare tactic, and quite frankly, counter to GE’s own military engine business. There are more than 4,000 GE F404s powering the entire F/A-18 fleet and 14,000 GE T700s powering all the current and future Apache and Blackhawk/Seahawk fleets. These are massive fleets of aircraft, powered by a sole source engine provider, and neither has ever experienced a fleet-wide grounding. Nor has the F-22 powered solely by the Pratt & Whitney F119. The bottom line is that no military aircraft developed in the past three decades has been procured with multiple engine suppliers because it is unnecessary.
Why? Because advances in computer-based design and simulation applications, rigorous testing regimes, highly accurate, capable, and repeatable manufacturing processes, new durable materials and powerful digital electronics have dramatically improved the safety and reliability of modern jet engines.
Furthermore, technological advancements in risk management and mitigation processes have mitigated fleet-wide groundings resulting from propulsion system design, material or logistics failures. Improved inspection capabilities, as well as the increasing use of prognostic health and condition-monitoring systems, detect problems early and thus mitigate their potential impact on flight operations. In other words, this is fifth generation technology, not first, second or third generation.
This constant march of technological progress has yielded benefits across the aviation sector. For instance, in the commercial aviation sector, the Federal Aviation Administration and similar organizations abroad have lengthened the Extended-Range Twin-Engine Operation Performance Standards (ETOPS) to allow a 180-minute diversion period for twin-engine airliners.
As U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz said in March 2010, “We are not in the 1980s any longer, where high-performance engines had suspect reliability.”
Besides, consider that a fighter aircraft is a system of systems. It is critical that each of the subsystems perform flawlessly to keep the jet flying safely. There is no reason to believe the engine is any more likely to ground the fleet than the airframe, flight controls, radar, landing gear, etc., none of which are competed. In fact, when you look at the data, it has been these other systems that have been responsible for fleet groundings in the past. But, these systems aren’t procured from dual sources, and neither are engines…usually. Why? Because we’re not in the 80’s anymore.
Finally, as we’ve pointed out in the past, fielding two engines can actually have a negative impact on reliability since the chances of having issues that need to be addressed are now doubled. You will have two engines, two training and support systems, two supply chains, two of everything…doubling the likelihood that there will be issues in the field.
Past experience has proven that the best way to introduce a new engine into service is to first mature it on a two-engine fighter, then put it on a single engine aircraft. P&W has done it with the F119 on the F-22 which has more than 280,000 hours, is the safest most reliable fighter engine ever fielded, and serves as the basis for the F135 on the single engine F-35.
Safety of flight should be a “spin free” zone, because nothing is more serious in the life-or-death world of supersonic fighter aircraft. Funding the F136 may have made sense early in the F-35 program, before the F135 had proven itself. But with 10 years of development, more than 17,000 test hours, Initial Service Release, initial production deliveries, and full up STOVL operations in the rear view mirror, it is clear the F135 is fulfilling its assigned mission flawlessly. Having an insurance policy is fine when you’re unsure of the future. But the future of the F135 is now, and it’s demonstrating day in and day out that it’s ready for the mission to power the F-35. It’s time to cancel that costly, unnecessary insurance policy