Monday, July 26, 2010

A Brief History Lesson

Following GE Vice Chairman Rice’s imaginative opinion about his perceived lack of any past F-35 Joint Strike Fighter engine competition, we thought we’d provide a public service and jog his memory, by providing a brief reminder of historical facts.

For major platforms like the F-35, complex systems may be procured via a Contractor-Furnished Equipment (CFE) or Government-Furnished Equipment (GFE) acquisition strategy. Either option provides a full and open competition with government participation. When the GFE process is used, the government solicits competing proposals, chooses a winner, and that system is provided to the prime contractor. Conversely under CFE rules, the prime contractor conducts the competition and selects a winner with government oversight and approval.

This latter option was chosen for the F-35 propulsion system, resulting in proposals submitted by Pratt & Whitney and GE to Lockheed Martin, Boeing and McDonnell Douglas, the original JSF contract competitiors. The Pratt & Whitney engine won that competition, and the government approved the process.

 Separately, GE was awarded a contract to begin developing the F136 extra engine. But it has since lost the support of two consecutive presidential administrations, prompting the Defense Department to urge Congress to discontinue F136 funding as the Pratt & Whitney F135 has proven itself at every stage of the development process and now into production.

 Yet, GE and their congressional allies still want to “re-compete” what they failed to win through the transparent down-select process described above. The fact that the F135 is meeting the requirements of the program and has successfully powered the F-35 through flight test stands in stark contrast to GE’s doomsday scenario that an extra engine is needed in case of a devastating, but heretofore completely mythical, fleet-wide grounding issue. But, if such occurrences were really a potentiality, wouldn’t the White House and Pentagon – charged with defending our nation – ask for such a redundancy? And for that matter, why not also mandate duplication in avionics, landing gear and other flight-critical systems?

The answer, as we’ve stated many times before, is that the best engine already won the competition, and has proven itself beyond a shadow of a doubt, through the most rigorous test program to date. 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.”

But despite all the rhetoric in Washington and elsewhere on this issue, this debate really isn’t about “us versus them.” Admittedly, the stakes are high for both engine teams, but they are far more critical for warfighters (who deserve only the best) and taxpayers (who crave fiscal restraint, not politics as usual).

Speaking at an event sponsored by The Hill newspaper on June 23, Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen encapsulated the overlapping interest of these two publics when he frankly stated, “The biggest threat we have to our national security is our debt.” He went on to admit that while incentivizing savings is difficult, it has been done over time. If not now, after the competition has already been won, then when?

School may be out, but GE Vice Chairman Rice might want to consider a summer class or two. We recommend History of JSF Procurement 101.

– EagleBlogger


  1. If a system failure results in the grounding of the aircraft, the mission is significantly compromised. The alternative is for the government to fund an alternative engine system, a costly insurance policy that may never pay dividends. We al realize now, we don't live in a world of unlimited funds, as it has been in past wars, the manufacturer must recognize their exceptional responsibility as the engine provider, for mission capability, for safety, and for the protection of our homeland.

  2. Late to the debate. What about the claims that the F135 engine is dramatically over budget, has required multi-billion dollar infusions, and that delivered costs per engine have risen dramatically? Please understand, I do not take these claims at face value, but I'd like to know if they have a basis or not.

  3. Thanks for the question, King. PW has faced some challenges along the way, but the good news is that our development phase is almost done and costs are headed down, while the extra engine is just beginning development and costs are on the way up.

    You don't need to take our word at face value either. Take a look at these articles:

    P&W: Cost For Next Batch of F-35 Engines 10% Less


    Pratt defends cost-cutting measures on F-35 engine