With the loss of the F136 alternate engine program for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in the rear view mirror, GE is betting on a $600 million per year investment in next-generation engine tech to position it to supply power for a new crop of military planes like the Air Force's new bomber and the jet-powered drones being developed by the Navy.
The "sixth generation combat jet propulsion activities are really the focus of our combat segment now," said Jean Lydon-Rodgers, head of GE Aviation's military engines segment, during a press conference in Washington Thursday.
These new engines will yield dramatic improvements in fuel efficiency, range and heat management, according to company executives.
The firm plans to initially pour the results of that $600 million in yearly research spending into engines such as GE's LEAP and GEnX powerplants that are being designed for the civilian airliner market; this will help bridge any funding gaps between now and when the Pentagon issues contracts for its next combat and allow GE to figure out how to mass produce the new engines while keeping costs down.
However, the LEAP engines are based on similar technology that is being developed for the Air Force's next generation engine research program that GE is working on under the Adaptive Versatile Engine Technology (ADVENT) name.
These new engines can adjust the amount of airflow through the engine core to maximize efficiency during different flight speeds and are built using advanced heat-absorbing materials that allow the jets to run hotter, increasing power and potentially helping to mask the planes heat signature; something that's very useful for military planes that have to operate over long distances against enemies with advanced anti-aircraft weaponry (think a big country in Asia).
In fact, GE's ADVENT engines are designed to improve fuel burn by 25 percent, provide 30 percent longer range and improve heat "management" by 40 percent over current jet engines, according to GE.
Here's what Jean Lydon-Rodgers, head of GE Aviation's military branch said about the company's strategy to compete in the 21st Century military jet engine arena during a press conference yesterday.
"We obviously have to be prudent in the investments that we make, we have to make selective bets and try to figure out the best way to spend our money and to try to do it in the most synergistic way possible with our commercial engines but I couldn't be more excited about the opportunity, especially in regards to the combat segment, to leverage the technologies being developed for our LEAP engine [like heat-absorbing ceramic matrix composites] which started in our military portfolio [they were used on the F136] but have been adopted in our commercial engines because of the tremendous benefits they offer in terms of performance, in terms of weight, in terms of cooling capability. So, as we develop these technologies and improve the manufacturing readiness levels and we have the opportunities to bring them back [to the military sector], I think it greatly reduces our risk on the military side, making those military application investments a little bit more stable for us."
The basic hot core of the civilian-oriented LEAP and military-focused ADVENT style engines are similar, a fact that GE is hoping will allow it to quickly make the switch from building next gen "variable cycle" engines to military jets.
When I asked her about GE's work on engines that are specifically designed for the Air Force's new bomber and the Navy's stealthy, fighter sized attack drone known as the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS), she said:
"What we're working on is a common [engine hot core], that would be used whether it was for a bomber or for a next generation Air Force or Navy platform. The key for us, I believe is, because we're going to making this investment in the technology, is that we make sure that the core will be applicable across this broad range of platforms and then you can always change your fan and your low pressure system to dial in what the [aircraft] needs. But relative to being the most efficient in the technology development and investment that we're making, the focus for us is to drive as much commonality as possible. So trying to understand what those [new bombers and UAVs] are demanding today is really what's setting our target for what that common core configuration will look like."