After ten months of testing, the alternate engine that General Electric and Rolls Royce are building for the F-35 joint strike fighter has managed to run for a grand total of 52 hours, during which time the engine has experienced four major failures. The most recent failure, in October, will force the team to redesign part of the engine and rework its entire development schedule — delaying the date at which competition with Pratt & Whitney’s primary engine can begin until 2016 at the earliest.
At the same point in its own development, Pratt & Whitney’s engine had accumulated over 1100 hours of testing, and it didn’t encounter a single setback until it had run for 700 hours. There’s a reason why Pratt & Whitney did so much better: it derived its engine from the thoroughly tested powerplant on the F-22 fighter, which had taken 20 years (and many mis-steps) to develop. GE and Rolls are trying to compress a quarter century of innovation into a fraction of that time, and the results speak for themselves.
It is clear that the alternate-engine team simply doesn’t know enough about stealthy, fifth-generation fighter operations to avoid mistakes that Pratt & Whitney made many years ago. The companies that competed to build the joint strike fighter recognized that might be a problem, which is why they opted to use the Pratt engine on their designs. GE complained this would produce an engine “monopoly,” and under the disingenuous banner of competition managed to find enough self-interested legislators willing to waste taxpayer money so that they could force their way back into the program. But the truth of the matter was that there had already been a series of competitions, and Pratt won.
Now we see why. The alternate engine has become a burden to the F-35 program, driving up the plane’s cost at a time when all weapons programs are under severe scrutiny due to record budget deficits. The increased costs will carry over into the plane’s operational lifetime, because it will be saddled with two redundant but dissimilar engines, requiring separate sets of spare parts, separate maintenance procedures, and separate facilities that cumulatively will cost tens of billions of dollars beyond what was necessary.
Proponents of the alternate engine said the added costs would all be covered by gains in price and performance that could only be achieved if there were competing engines. But those predictions are proving wrong, and what we are getting instead is higher up-front costs than expected with no benefits from competition anytime soon. So the alternate-engine program turns out to be just another big, fat subsidy for companies that couldn’t compete successfully in the marketplace.
Congress needs to heed the Obama Administration and kill this wasteful program. There are many more worthy programs that could use the $5 billion we will have to spend to get the alternate engine to the point where it can compete with the perfectly good engine we already have. And we don’t need to burden warfighters with the complexity of supporting two different engines when the one we already have is the best fighter engine ever built.
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