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F-35 chief endorses competition for engines and radars

New F-35 programme chief Brig Gen David Heinz strongly defended the case for funding two separate engines and raised the possibility of qualifying Raytheon or Thales as an alterative radar supplier.

Speaking to reporters on 2 June, Heinz spoke out in favour of continuing production of the General Electric/Rolls-Royce F136 alternate engine despite its added costs.

"I believe that part of the debate that has to occur -- and is occurring - is, is there an operational risk that we are accepting by having just a single engine manufacturer?" Heinz asked. "I simply think that we focus too much of the discussion about the cost and not the operational risk."

Pratt & Whitney was selected to supply the F135 as the baseline engine, but the two engines are expected to compete for orders starting in Fiscal 2013.

For the fourth year in a row, however, Congress is considering restoring funds after the DOD submitted a budget request for Fiscal 2010 that eliminates the programme. President Barack Obama has singled out the F136 as an example of government waste.

Heinz noted that he "categorically supports" the Pentagon's budget policies, but he is also concerned that relying on a single engine supplier may be an unacceptable risk. The F-35 replaces the F-16, F/A-18C/D and the AV-8B fleets, so a safety-critical issue affecting the F135 could cause the Pentagon to ground most of its tactical airpower fleet, he said.

Moreover, the "great engine war" in the 1980s between GE and P&W for F-16 and F-15 engines yielded a 20% cost reduction, Heinz said. It's not yet possible to predict the economic benefit of the new 'engine war', he added, but he does expect the rivalry to lead to faster technology upgrades and lower prices.

For different reasons, Heinz said that in theory he could support selecting Raytheon or Thales to supply an alternative radar for the F-35.

Northrop Grumman currently supplies the APG-81 active electronically scanned array (AESA). But if Northrop's current factory becomes overwhelmed by the production ramp-up, Heinz said, the programme might seek to qualify Raytheon or Thales to supply a compatible alternative.

Raytheon's APG-79 AESA was originally developed for the Boeing X-32, the losing bidder in 2001 for the JSF contract. However, the US Navy selected the APG-79 for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler, and the radar is now in full-rate production. Meanwhile, Thales is developing the RBE-2 AESA for the Dassault Rafale.

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