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The Great Engine War Is Over

If the value of the engine contracts for the Joint Strike Fighter ever equals the number of words offered in defense of the three companies and the concept of competition America will never be able to afford another weapon. But with the prospect of declining acquisition budgets and the pressures on the F-35 program, there is little doubt everyone will struggle until the issue is decided -- for this budget cycle at least. The commentary by former F-16 pilot Robert Newton we ran a few days ago thrilled the partisans of a second engine. Congressional aides circulated it. Companies spread it far and wide. Now, inevitably, a Pratt & Whitney partisan, John Michael Loh, has penned a rebuttal. We are proud to sponsor the debate -- and to stir the pot.

Former F-16 fighter pilot, Robert Newton’s piece on DoDBuzz about the desire to have an extra engine for the F-35 is a classic example of old fighter pilots’ tendency to fight the last war.  But the one and only great engine war is over, and refighting it now will only cost taxpayer dollars we don’t have. He claims to speak for himself and other F-16 pilots that, together, agree the alternative engine is essential. He also claims the F-16 is the parent of the F-35 inferring that the F-35 then needs an alternate engine.  Not so.  The F-22 is the parent of the F-35.  And the F-35’s F135 engine is a direct descendant of the highly successful F119 engine in the F-22, not the F100 engine.  Thus, Mr. Newton’s argument is fundamentally flawed from the start.

The arguments set forth are more nostalgic than logical.  Newton cites early F-16 problems with compressor stalls and afterburner blow-outs.  These problems were in the F-15’s F100 engine and in the first few lots of the F-16A in the late 70s.  They were fixed well before the engine competition that occurred later in the 80s.  The real reason for the F100 engine competition was the extreme arrogance and unresponsiveness of the engine builder at that time. Costs were increasing and engine maintenance problems were ignored.  The Air Force decided that a competition was the only way to fix that situation. No other military aircraft since then has been procured with an extra engine.  There is no alternate engine for the F-22, V-22, T-6, or the F/A-18E/F, all developed after the F-16.

None of the issues above are present in today’s F-35 and F135 program.  The F135 is experiencing none of the problems the early F100 suffered.  On the contrary, the Air Force began development of the F119 engine well before the start of the F-22 program and, unlike the history of the F100, contemplated a single engine application.  The result is the most successful engine development and production program in history.  The F135’s pedigree is impeccable.  It represents two generations of engines beyond the early F100s of Newton’s experience with three times its reliability. There is no reason to expect a catastrophic failure in this program, and the current contractor team is highly responsive and responsible

Moreover, all the real reasons for not having an alternate engine do apply.  Let me mention just a few.

The alternate engine will never produce an economic advantage.  Even under most favorable assumptions, analyses show no payback for the development, production and logistic support for a second engine.  Extra engine supporters like to point to a GAO report which claims that savings of up to $20 billion are possible with an alternate in place.  They neglect to mention, however, a carefully worded caveat that says “results are dependent on how the government decides to run the competition, the number of aircraft that are ultimately purchased, and the exact ratio of engines awarded to each contractor.”  There is a difference between possible and probable that, in my experience, allows a wedge of alibis and loopholes you could drive a Mack truck through.

Safety will be compromised.  When the alternate engine is introduced in 2017, the F-35 will be in high rate production.  In my experience, putting a new and unproven engine on a single-engine fighter in high rate production will result in many unnecessary, and perhaps fatal, accidents while the new engine works its way through its inevitable infant mortality phase.

Operating and maintaining two engines for the same fighter greatly complicates operations and logistics support, and compromises basing and employment decisions.  It restricts decisions on basing because all F-35s at a base have to have the same engine; and, it limits basing choices for overseas deployments for the same reason.

Two engines require two maintenance training programs, two sets of intermediate maintenance facilities, two supply chains, and two depot maintenance infrastructures.  All unnecessary and too costly in today’s budget environment.             The small fleet sizes of the Navy and Marine Corps buy of F-35’s rule out application for a second engine.  It just makes no sense for these small fleets and shipborne operations.

These arguments easily outweigh those who want a repeat of the great engine war just for old time’s sake.  These are different times and the situation is altogether different.  The fighter pilots in today’s Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps rightly reject the need for an alternate engine.  They know it’s wasteful and, if continued, will reduce significantly the number of F-35s each service will field.

John Michael  Loh is a former fighter pilot, Air Force vice chief of staff and commander of Air Combat Command.  He consults for several defense companies including Pratt & Whitney.

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