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Axing The F-35's Alternative Engine Was An Incredibly Stupid Move

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The DoD painted the F-35's alternative jet engine as a huge unneeded expense, one that was more about congressional pork than necessity or logic. Now with the fleet grounded due a mystery engine fire, we are reminded of how stupid it was to cancel the jet's other engine.

A Tail Of Two Engines...

The Joint Strike Fighter was envisioned with having two engine options since early on in the program's history. These included the F135, based on the F-22's Pratt & Whitney F119 turbofan and the General Electric/Rolls Royce F136 turbofan based on the competitor of the F119 during the Advanced Tactical Fighter program fly-off in the early 1990s, the General Electric F120.


Generally speaking, the F120 was known to have been the more advanced and innovative engine design when it was flown on the YF-23 and YF-22 ATF test aircraft. Although it was slightly heavier than the F119 it was said to have greater room for thrust upgrades in the future and excelled at high-altitude, high speed operations. In the end the USAF chose the F119 mainly because it presented less technological risk.


The ATF competition was held well over 20 years ago, and a lot has changed when it comes to engine technology and metallurgy since then. Yet, the Joint Strike Fighter's F120 derived F136 engine was seen by many as more advanced than the F-35's primary engine choice, the F135. None-the-less, the F135's predecessor was already nearing operation in the F-22 and it had years of federally funded development time under its belt in comparison to the F136.

This was not much of an issue during the early and mid-2000s as the JSF program progressed and funding to the F136 alternative engine continued to flow even though there were some sporadic calls for its cancellation. Once the F-35 program hit the rocks and became mired in weight issues, sliding timelines and broken budgets, along with the crash of the US economy towards the end of the decade, the "almost all my eggs in one basket" fighter concept turned into an "every last egg in one basket" fighter concept when the Pentagon and the Obama Administration began threatening to cancel the F136 alternative engine project once and for all.

The Obama Administration's call for canceling the F136 was not the first bit of turbulence the JSF's alternative engine program hit, in fact, threats of cancellation from one congressional committee or politico or another began as far back as the middle of the decade. I will spare you the massive soap opera like timeline, as you can get a good idea of it here. Yet by the late 2000s, then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates showcased the F136 program as needless waste, even though a clear majority in the defense analyst and journalism world saw it as an essential and stabilizing element of a program that was already viewed as extremely high-risk.


By the fall of 2011, the F136 development was over 80% complete and had about another $2B to go before wrapping up. Yet Washington went along with the Obama Administration's veto threats and the program was finally cancelled. Apparently, the thought that saving a couple billion dollars in the very near term was worth adding massive risk to an already very troubled and risky trillion and a half dollar weapons program, the biggest in the history of mankind.


Spend Two Billion Now, Save Billions Later...


The strangest thing about the cancellation of the F136 is that it defies exactly what the Pentagon learned during the "great engine war" of the mid 1980s and 1990s. This successful practice in choice driving increased efficiency, quality, capability, and lower costs saw the F-16's customers, and years later the F-15's customers for that matter, go from having only the Pratt & Whitney F100 engine option, to having a choice between it and the General Electric F110.

With the USAF soliciting bids from both engine manufacturers to outfit its yearly F-16 purchases, as well as foreign customers having the choice between both engines, the results were stunning according to the GAO:

  • Nearly 30 percent cumulative savings for acquisition costs
  • Roughly 16 percent cumulative savings for operations and support costs
  • Total savings of about 21 percent in overall life cycle costs.
  • More rapid improvement in both engine designs, including more thrust and "twice the life and much more durability"
  • Much higher product service from manufacturers

The fact that the USAF now had redundancy built into their fighter engine program was free.


So why, after such a successful hallmark program that not only saved money but created better, more powerful and reliable engines, with better product support from their suppliers, would the Defense Department think such a practice is a waste of money for the F-35?


Even during the aforementioned "great engine wars" of the 1980s and 1990s, America had multiple fighter aircraft in production including the F-16, F-15, F/A-18, with many other fighter and attack aircraft in service with extensive rebuilding programs being offered by their manufacturers. The F-35, on the other hand, will most likely see no alternative manned fighter aircraft built in the US once it enters widespread use in the 2020s.

Such a meek indigenous fighter aircraft production outlook compounds the reality that the F-35 will only have a single engine option, even though it was built to "plug and play" either the F136 or the F135. This means that in the coming decades the vast majority of America's fighter fleet could be grounded at any given time due to engine issues, and considering the Pentagon has never asked for 40,000lbs of thrust out of a single turbofan from its contractors, this is real possibility.


The Jet Didn't Request, Design, Build & Procure Itself ...

Like so many things F-35, the flawed philosophy behind its genesis and its procurement are mainly to blame for its woes, not the resulting hardware alone. If you are going to have a one-size-fits all fighter jet that will take the place of many distinct types than you better at least build some sort of redundancy into the program wherever you can. Having an alternative engine available is one place where injecting some of this redundancy makes the most sense, especially since we were already heavily invested in it at the time of its late cancellation.


Surely the F-35 program will recover from its latest incident, although this one looks like it will be the first Class A mishap ($2M or more in damage) that the JSF program has experienced. What is worse is that the $120M F-35A involved was brand new and may not be rebuildable resulting in a total write-off. Additionally, this event comes at a time when the F-35 was supposed to make its much hyped international air show debut and first cross-ocean crossing to the UK, which is now in doubt. As a result, the "optics" of such a catastrophic event occurring at this highly publicized moment in the program's already troubled existence is less than ideal to say the least.


Assuming the engine issue that caused the recent F-35A fire are rectified without major refitting being needed, something that could put the program months further back on its already atrociously reformed developmental timeline, it is still a clear of reminder how the couple billion dollars that the F136 needed to finishing development was a relatively small price to pay for a large serving of redundancy and piece of mind. This is especially true considering that history has proven that a second engine will pay for itself over time and will result in a more capable and dependable fighter aircraft.


Let's say the F136 alternative engine program were restarted, and somehow the remaining unsunk development costs were never recouped through competition and its resulting efficiency, that couple billion bucks equals about one half of one percent of the entire F-35 procurement cost (close to $400B), and less than one fifth of one percent of the entire trillion and a half dollar F-35 program.


When you take a step back and look at those comparative figures, finishing development of the F136 is an incredible bargain for the DoD, the US Taxpayer and the Warfighter, and you don't have to be a jet engine scientist to figure it out.

Pictures via Lockheed Martin, DoD, GE and P&W

Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer that maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address