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F35 Engine Fight Reignites

Dan Barrett
May 11, 2010

As the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) continues through its extended developmental phase, the F-35 Alternate Engine Project once again is in the spotlight. The competition was initiated to produce the best power plant for the new plane. General Electric is still creating its version and sees a future where the F-35 has two engines to choose from. Some Congressional Members, more concerned with pork than defense, agree. The original engine company (Pratt & Whitney) and the Department of Defense are defending a single engine system – not just because it was a parameter of the competition but a practical military logistical detail.

Costs have become a chief concern even in the deficit-prone defense-sector. GE has offered a fixed-price deal to the Pentagon, citing the competition could lower costs by $20 billion over the jet's lifespan. Pratt & Whitney has already offered a fixed-price contract, which would leave excess cost with the manufacturer rather than the American taxpayer. The catch in this competition comes with differing timelines. GE requires $485 million to maintain its development program while P&W has completed its engine. GE claims the competition brings about lower long-term prices and higher quality. However, justifications go only as far as the bank. Further upfront GE costs will equal $2.9 billion and will save $1 billion over the next five years. There is little to no difference in performance in either engine.

Although competition is key to innovation, there comes a time to decide on one engine for America's next-generation air superiority craft. P&W have already developed and integrated their engine into the F-35 framework. They have also offered guarantees against cost overruns in a fully binding agreement. GE must accept its loss and cease spending millions ($25.5 million so far) on lobbying Congress for a piece of equipment the military does not need. Secretary of Defense recently said, "Study on top of study has shown that an extra [F-35] fighter engine achieves marginal potential savings but heavy upfront costs – nearly $3 billion worth." Hopefully members of Congress will resolve this issue for our service members in time to honor their sacrifice on Armed Forces Day this Saturday.


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Submitted by Pete Sepp at: May 14, 2010
So "JetMech" and "Dan" (not Dan Barrett) took time out from their apparent day jobs at defending GE to join our discussion. Bring it on. Here are a few things they may want to consider. First, the "Great Engine War" -- C'mon "Dan," be honest, where are the taxpayer savings that resulted from this? Can you name any? If it was such a fiscal watershed, why has the Pentagon never chosen (on its own) to go the route of a second engine again, having these options instead forced upon it by Congress? The F-18s and F-22s don't have alternate engines; neither do the Blackhawk or Apache helicopters, which, by the way, run on GE engines. I wonder, do you guys think Congress should force the Pentagon to buy a P&W alternative to those powerplants? I guess we need to reiterate why alternate engines tend to be of doubtful value to taxpayers. You need two supply chains, two sets of maintenance personnel, and two sets of deployment scenarios because some bases may not be able to accommodate aircraft with both engines. Yes, yes, some commonalities exist, especially in training, but to become really proficient and efficient sometimes means specializing rather than generalizing personnel and supply chains. "Dan" accuses Mr. Barrett of omitting "the REASON that P&W offered a fixed-price contract in the first place, [that it] was in response to the first fixed-price offer from GE/Rolls." Oops, omission of your own "Dan"! P&W actually made the first fixed-price offer a couple months ahead of GE, but the Pentagon did not express interest in fixed-price at that stage of development. Check your GE sources, Dan, because GE was told the same thing. Check GE's offer too Dan, it wasn't really fixed-price anyway. GE had a renegotiation option if the Pentagon changed specs or the number of engines it wanted in a given year. As for "JetMech"'s statement that "the GE/Rolls project is both on-schedule and budget," do you get out and read much? The F136 engine was shut down in October after failing and testing didn't resume until the beginning of this year. Here are a few things to jog your memory, "Jetmech," about the GE engine's schedule and budget problems: Guys, if you want to have a reasoned debate about the F-35’s powerplant, fine, but don't try to portray your spin as "the truth." If you'd like to talk about even-handedness, consider that over its 40-year history NTU has taken on Lockheed, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, GE, P&W, and just about every other major contractor at one time or another. That earns us a lot of scorn from sore losers for "taking sides," but in the end, the only side we're taking is the taxpayer's.

Submitted by Dan at: May 14, 2010
So you a proposing throwing away the 3 billion dollars taxpayers have already invested in the alternate engine, as well as a potential 20 billion in savings over the life of the program (a competition-driven cost savings metric set by the original Great Engine War). Not to mention the fact that the multi-national JSF contract agreement, signed by all eight partner nations, calls specifically for an alternate powerplant option for the F35. And all this to contract exclusively with a company (P&W) that has proven, both with the 1980's F100 fiasco and the current F135, that it is unable to stay on-budget and on-schedule while still delivering a quality product.

Submitted by Dan Barrett at: May 13, 2010
First off, when Jetmech addresses the GE time line of development, the engine is in fact still being built whereas the P&W (the original designer awarded money to build the engine) is already being tested in the F-35 platform. The time to test the new engine would push back deployment even further than it already has been. Secondly, Dan mentions $2 billion in P&W overbudgeting and yet another $3 billion would be acceptable in slowing deployment and achieving similar results as the engine currently being tested? As both developers have numerous cost overruns, you can cite problems all day and it still doesn't change the fact that the DoD has chosen the P&W engine, even with the GE engine on the table for consideration. Most importantly, the DoD would not go with a defective engine from a third-rate company, especially if there was an alternative that beat out the original. So it comes down to deciding if spending billions more on a GE engine would greatly improve the JSF's engine capabilities. SecDef Gates cites the P&W engine satisfies the Pentagon's requirements and doesn't need a second engine. It's time Congress makes a decision: spend billions more on a similar engine that the military doesn't want or side with taxpayers and end the alternative engine project.

Submitted by Dan at: May 12, 2010
The mid-1980's scenario mentioned below refers to the "Great Engine War", which affected the F-15 and F-16. Look it up. You might learn something.

Submitted by Dan at: May 12, 2010
You conveniently fail to mention several key points here. The main omission is that the REASON that P&W offered a fixed-price contract in the first place was in response to the first fixed-price offer from GE/Rolls. The Pratt development program is behind schedule, has had numerous problems, and is already more than two BILLION dollars overbudget, while the GE/Rolls project is both on-schedule and budget. Without the looming threat of an alternate engine, Pratt's costs would still be spiraling out of control, and the government would have to just deal with it. This exact scenario played out in the mid-1980s, where the contractor was non-responsive to engine issues, claiming that any design improvement was outside the contract scope. Guess who that contractor was? Pratt and Whitney. Pratt's performance was so poor that the government contracted with GE to build an alternate option, which finally led to a P&W redesign and improved responsiveness. So please, stop posting rehashed nonsense with the same old talking points unless you are willing to give ALL of the facts, not just a select few.

Submitted by Jetmech at: May 12, 2010
Little to no performance diffrence?!?! Look at the facts again. The GE has room for performance upgrades while the Pratt does not. The GE engine is on budget and on time. The pratt engine is still getting the bugs worked out and is way over budget. (so yeah its not as complete as you are leading people believe)