War of Words Erupts Over F-35 Engines

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Guy Norris/Los Angeles

The future of the Joint Strike Fighter alternate engine program reaches a critical juncture this week when the U.S. Senate is expected to vote on whether to follow through on its earmarking for the General Electric Rolls-Royce F136 in the 2010 defense budget. The second F135-powered F-35B flew for a second time on July 13. If it survives, the first F136-powered F-35 will not fly for at least two years.Credit: STEVE SHANK

It is a vote engine industry insiders say is too close to call, and which could finally make or break the long-running alternate F136 engine campaign. Although losing the full Senate vote would not directly end the program, both sides of the engine debate recognize that coming back from a "no vote" this time would not be easy.

Pratt & Whitney--stung by the loss of two F135 engines in the program cuts this year and facing a similar outcome in 2010 as a result of funding for the F136--is posturing to defend its corner more aggressively than ever before. The company, which also faces the simultaneous threat of losing funding for the final batch of F119-powered Lockheed Martin F-22s, is being bullish over its latest F135 program achievements to date and positive over its cost-cutting plans for the engine.

Pratt's position is strongly backed by the White House, which last week threatened to veto the defense bill if it includes spending on the F136 that Defense Secretary Robert Gates earlier identified as wasteful. A bluntly worded White House statement says "the administration strongly objects to the addition of $438.9 million for development of the alternative engine program. The administration also objects to provisions of the bill that mandate an alternative engine program for the JSF."

Facing its hardest fight for survival yet, the embattled General Electric/Rolls-Royce Fighter Engine Team was buoyed by figures presented by the House Armed Services Committee, which appears to support one of the F136 team's principal arguments that competition will help keep costs in check.

In a statement, the committee says "the F-35 program manager has reported an increase of approximately 38-43% in F135 engine procurement cost estimates between December 2005 and December 2008, in the annual selected acquisition reports for the F-35C and F-35A variants. Between December 2005 and December 2008, engine procurement cost estimates for the F-35B have grown approximately 47%, but the F-35B engine procurement cost growth is attributable to both the F135 engine and the F-35B's lift fan."

But Warren Boley, Pratt & Whitney vice president for F135 programs, says "the numbers referenced represent future cost projections over the total program (30 years) if we do not achieve 'learned-out' cost. However, with the aggressive steps we are currently taking, and our experience in significantly reducing the cost of the F119 as it was learned out, we believe we have the same opportunities for cost reduction with the F135."

Cost savings on the F135, Boley says, will include lessons learned from the test program, lean production initiatives, production changes in the assembly shop and reductions in rework and scrap. "We know what the F-35 Joint Program Office needs, and we know we can get it because we did it on the F119."

The learned-out cost reduction on the F119 was 30%, and "we see those opportunities" for the F135, Boley notes. The projected costs are targeted for the 250th production engine scheduled for 2014, and will hold for the bulk of the program. "That's a significant cost saving on 1,500-3,000 engines," he says. Pratt is currently assembling the initial production configuration units and will deliver the first seven to Lockheed Martin in the fourth quarter of this year.

Despite the House committee's main focus on F135 costs, the F136 team also received a significant boost from the panel for keeping its costs stable. Saying the F136 "has not experienced any cost growth since its inception," it notes the $411-million pre-EMD [equal to system development and demonstration, or SDD] contract cost remained steady, while the main $2.48-billion EMD deal signed in 2005 "has been stable since contract award." In a hard-hitting summary, it adds that, "given the F135 development and procurement cost increases, the committee is perplexed by the department's decisions over the past three years to not include an F-35 competitive propulsion system program in its budget requests."

However, Pratt proponents point out that cost and schedule are easier to maintain in a limited development effort such as the early pre-SDD phases of the F136, and cite indications of growing slippages in the alternate engine schedule. The F136 team acknowledged at the recent Paris air show that the date for the first flight-test engine has slid to early 2011 from 2010, but says this reflects schedule adjustments by Lockheed Martin rather than any engine development issues.

The F136 team does confirm, however, that funding shortages and shifting program schedules have forced it to reprioritize initial service release (ISR) targets. "We've moved it up for CTOL [conventional takeoff and landing] to March 2012, and Stovl [short takeoff and vertical landing] has gone out to the right to around March 2013," says the team. The change to the Stovl target reflects the fact that no F136-powered F-35s are earmarked for the earlier production Lot 4 batch around that time. "They didn't need it until 2013, and we didn't have the money anyway," it adds.

The GE-Rolls team also says budget shortfalls have forced it to push back the initial flight readiness (IFR) milestones for the CTOL engine by three months, and IFR for Stovl by four months. The F136 team first met for IFR reviews in May. The meetings coincided with the resumption of tests on F136 Engine 004 following modifications to the bearing system.

Despite the hold-up, the F136 team insists that the schedule remains on track. Unlike the Pratt test schedule on the first SDD F135, which encompassed some 420 hr. of runs, it says the requirement for the GE-Rolls engine was smaller because the 700 hr. of runs during the pre-SDD phase included many aspects of the later configuration. Engine 004, the first SDD F136 to test, was never intended to exceed 100 hr. before the rebuild, it adds.

Photo credit: USAF

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