Fact-check on F-35 alternate engine debate

Jeremiah Gertler at the Congressional Research Service has published a very useful document on the F-35 alternate engine dispute. You can download it here: CRS report – alternate engine – Sept 2010.pdf

The report includes a list of frequently asked questions, which I excerpt below. My only quibble is the part that says the F-16 is the only US jet with more than one engine. The F-15 community might beg to differ. [UPDATE: To be fair to CRS, I'm referring to foreign F-15 owners. If this is only about jets in US service, CRS is correct.] But this should clear up some of the most important facts in the dispute.

Has DOD always opposed the alternate engine program?

No. From FY1996 to FY2006, funding for an alternate engine was included in the Administration budget request. Starting in FY2007, both the G.W. Bush and Obama Administrations deleted this request.

Was there an earlier competition for F-35 engines that one contractor won?

No. Three aircraft companies bid to design and build the F-35. One design used the GE/Rolls-Royce engine; two used the Pratt & Whitney engine. The two aircraft chosen as finalists both used the Pratt & Whitney engine. There was no separate engine competition.

Is this about replacing the existing engine supplier?

No. The issue is whether to underwrite development of a second engine to the point where a competition for production engines can be held. The estimated cost to do so ranges from $2 billion-3 billion.

Will F-35 engine competition save money?

Studies disagree. DOD, the Institute for Defense Analyses, and the GAO have done separate studies of potential F-35 engine competitions. DOD and IDA found that competition would not save enough to repay the initial investment; GAO found that it would. All studies found non-monetary benefits to the competition.

Will the competition be winner-take-all?

The rules for the competition(s) have not been established. In the 1985-1990 competition for F-15/F-16 engines, engine contracts were awarded in annual lots. Although annual ratios differed markedly, overall one contractor won 51% and the other 49%.

Do other military jets have multiple engine suppliers?

Yes. The F-16C/D fleet includes engines from different suppliers. All other U.S. jet models use single engine types and suppliers.

What is the chance that all F-35s will be grounded if they have the same engine?

It is impossible to state. Historically, with the F-14, F-15, and F-16, significant engine issues were discovered early in development, leaving time for the issues to be addressed through technical fixes, competitions, and/or wholesale replacement by another engine. No such issue has yet surfaced for the F-35. It is possible that a serious flaw could remain undiscovered until much later, when a significant portion of the F-35 fleet shared a common engine. There is no way to calculate the probability of this.


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5 Responses to Fact-check on F-35 alternate engine debate

  1. Marlena Mcmaster 24 September, 2010 at 6:28 am #

    Hello there I live in Austin, Texas. I had to stop and comment on your site. Thank you very much for sharing your blog with us.

  2. Weaponhead 24 September, 2010 at 7:03 pm #

    1. In the past we have had multiple fighters in production simultaneously and multiple fighter types deployed. If one type got grounded you were in a pinch but at least you had another type to cover. That will not be the case with F-35. In the late 2020s or early 2030s the F-35 will essentially be all we have.

    2. The F-35s are all single engine thus making any engine safety issue still more critical that a dual engine aircraft. In the past the USAF has put the “bad” engines on F-15s and reserved the “good” engines for F-16s. When we have an all F-35 TACAIR fleet this will not be possible and engine issues will be more critical.

    For these reasons, a single make of engine is a riskier proposition than on any other program in US history and anlogies to F-15 or F-16 are not sufficient.

  3. Aussie Digger 25 September, 2010 at 8:58 am #

    Except USAF will be operating F-22′s, F-15C’s and F-15E’s for the forseeable future and USN will be operating F/A-18 Super Hornets for a very long time too. Well into the 2030′s I’d expect…

    The grounding of one fighter type, even though it makes up the largest of the fleet will not leave the USA defenceless. Far from it it in fact. More than 1200 tacair fighters won’t be JSF’s under current plans…

  4. FlightDreamz 25 September, 2010 at 7:10 pm #

    You bring up some excellent points Weaponhead, but for my two cent’s I’d rather see an alternative engine only after the F-35 is in full production and is actually replacing some of the high flight hour legacy aircraft (as it was designed to do). If we spend time and resources on another engine now, it will only drive up costs an be another excuse to cut the production run. Like you mentioned the F-35 will be the bulk of our air forces and if there’s not enough air frames to go around….

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