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Air Force Devoting S&T Funds to Engine Technology
“A good deal of the S&T portfolio that’s looking at optimizing our use of energy while still providing the same capability or … additional capability is in propulsion,” said Leslie Perkins, the director of AFRL’s energy office. “Propulsion is our biggest investment in the S&T portfolio because … when we get this into the aircraft, we will see a noticeable difference — buying more sorties with the same amount of fuel; buying greater range with the same amount of fuel.”
Currently, the laboratory is working on developing an adaptive third-stream engine that can provide 25 percent fuel efficiency across all levels of throttle — sonic, supersonic and subsonic, Perkins said. That percentage of efficiency translates into 35 percent greater range for the aircraft, a 10 percent increase in thrust and additional thermal capacity. The engine would also greatly reduce tanker dependency and provide up to three times more target coverage in anti-access/area denial environments, according to an AFRL document.
The capability was originally part of the adaptive versatile engine technology program, an S&T effort that validated the aerodynamics and the mechanics of what goes into an adaptive third-stream engine, Perkins said. In 2012 it transitioned into the adaptive engine technology development (AETD) effort, examining the reliability and supportability of the engine components.
GE Aviation and Pratt & Whitney were both selected to participate in the AETD program, which is expected to wrap up in 2016 following a core engine test. The service has awarded more than $700 million worth of contracts for the project through 2015.
A follow-on effort known as the adaptive engine transition program is scheduled to begin in 2016, according to the research laboratory. The effort will be led by the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center.
The adaptive engine is meant to power the service’s sixth-generation combat aircraft. There has been speculation that it will also be used to provide an upgrade for the F-35 joint strike fighter.
“Adaptive engines provide capability benefits to multiple future combat aircraft,” said an AFRL spokesperson in an email responding to the reports. “Current efforts are focused on technology maturation and risk reduction that will enable a wide range of transition options.”