Rolls-Royce: F136 survival is key for major F-35 engine upgrade

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The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) could be the beneficiary around 2020 of a major engine upgrade if the F136 is not eliminated, a Rolls-Royce executive tells FlightGlobal.com

The F-35's propulsion system has become the main target for the Adaptive Versatile Engine Technology (ADVENT) engine competition managed by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), replacing the postponed next generation bomber (NGB).

"I think we do have a first point of entry [for ADVENT] identified regardless of what happens with NGB, and that is JSF," said Dennis Jarvi, president of Rolls' defence business in North America.

Rolls is currently a junior partner to General Electric for developing the F136 alternate engine for JSF. Meanwhile, GE and Rolls-Royce are competing for a Phase 2 contract by AFRL for the next round of ADVENT funding.

ADVENT technology, which promises a 25% increase in fuel efficiency or a corresponding boost in thrust, "would fit very nicely into something like F136," Jarvi said.

Jarvi also noted the engine upgrade would likely coincide with a major airframe upgrade in the same timeframe.

The upgrade potential of the ADVENT technology could weigh into the four-year-old debate on whether to continue investing in two propulsion systems for the F-35 programme.

Saying the Pratt & Whitney F135 is sufficient for JSF's propulsion needs, the Department of Defense has proposed killing the F136 funding again for the fourth year in a row, but some lawmakers have proposed restoring the funding.

The F-35 programme chief, Brig Gen David Heinz, has said he supports the DOD's decision, but he also believes that dueling JSF engine programmes could yield cost savings and reduce operational risk of a fleet-wide grounding caused by an engine problem.

In 2007, the AFRL rejected the P&W bid for the first phase of the ADVENT programme. As a result, P&W would have to internally-fund variable cycle engine technology to upgrade the F135 in the 2020 timeframe.

"Here's an opportunity for GE and Rolls-Royce to take this technology as a team and incorporate it in F136 as part of the Fighter Engine Team on JSF," Jarvi said.

Rolls has discussed the potential for the F-35 propulsion upgrades with USAF officials, he added, and "they have encouraged us".