LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Look Forward, Not Backward on F-35 Engines
Air Force photo
Earlier this year, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall announced that the service would not pursue development of a new replacement engine for the F-35 stealth fighter but rather upgrade the current Pratt & Whitney-made F135 engines. That is the right decision. It is up to Congress now to close that door and move on.
The secretary, a few days after making the decision, said the move to upgrade the fighters’ current engines instead of developing a new adaptive engine “was the right decision, given the constraints that we have, but [a choice] that I worry about a little bit.”
Kendall shouldn’t worry about his decision. It was the right call. In fact, it’s in keeping with predecessors and every major aircraft the military has bought since the dawn of aviation.
Since the Wright brothers, aircraft designers and builders have consistently upgraded and improved the existing engine the aircraft was designed around as the most affordable and risk-averse option available.
In 1903, the Wright Flyer, the aircraft that made the historic first manned flight, was powered by a four-cylinder, 12-horsepower engine. By the time the Army’s Signal Corps bought their first aircraft, the Wright Military Flyer in 1907, it was sporting an improved engine with an impressive 35 horsepower.
During World War II, the famed P-51 Mustang began life with a Packard-built Merlin 61 engine that cranked out 1,570 horsepower. By the time the P-51Ds rolled off the production lines a couple of years later, the upgraded Merlin engine was producing 1,695 horsepower.
When the first operational F-16A was delivered in January 1979 to the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, it was powered by a single Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-200 turbofan, rated at 23,830 pounds thrust with afterburner. Since then, more than 4,500 Falcons have been delivered to 26 countries.
During the production of the Falcon, the program has progressively improved the engine. With Pratt & Whitney and later GE building nearly identical engines in a competition to improve reliability and performance, the jet has had five major engine upgrades with the latest version producing nearly 30,000 pounds of thrust with full afterburner.
One of the key selling points for the F-35 fighter program is that the three U.S. users and well over a dozen allies all operate advanced fighters with very similar capabilities and logistics requirements. The F135 engine powers all three U.S. variants, as well as every F-35 sold to our allies.
Additionally, neither the Navy nor the Marines Corps — nor any of our allies flying the F-35 — are interested in changing to a new engine since it’s costly and unnecessary.
A few years ago, when I first worked in an organization led by Kendall — then the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics — key to his leadership were the principles espoused in his Better Buying Power initiative. Twenty-four acquisition experts, working with the Defense Acquisition University, researched and provided the 10 principles of Better Buying Power.
Let me share the first principle: “Continuous improvement will be more effective than radical change.” All of Better Buying Power is based on this concept.
It’s the reason it has gone through three editions. We make incremental change focused on the biggest problems we see. Then we monitor the results and evaluate progress. We drop or modify ideas that aren’t working, and we attack the next set of problems in order of importance, priority or expected impact. Those ideas and policies that work are not abandoned for the next shiny object we see.
Kendall’s misgivings about killing a replacement engine should be put to bed. Looking backward, we see only a $6 billion, high-risk effort that would waste money, see at least 70 fewer F-35s made and slow production of a fifth-generation fighter just as world tensions are at or near their highest point in recent history.
Looking forward, we will see a stable, robust F135 engine with a great deal of built-in room to improve capability and performance.
“Continuous improvement will be more effective than radical change.” This principle was correct then and is correct now.
Look forward, not backward.
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Scott Vadnais supported the Air Force engine system program office and is a former senior strategic planner at General Dynamics. He has no family or financial ties to any company involved in this issue.