Andrea Shalal-Esa of Reuters reported this week that deliveries of the alternate engine being developed by General Electric and Rolls Royce for the F-35 joint strike fighter will be delayed by a year. Repeated testing failures are forcing the engine team to redesign an important part, driving up costs for the huge fighter program while putting off the time when users can benefit from competition between the GE-Rolls engine and the primary engine built by the Pratt & Whitney unit of United Technologies.
The problems with the alternate engine appear to be more serious than difficulties that cropped up in developing the Pratt engine several years ago. GE and Rolls can no longer hold to their baseline schedule, and are being forced to replan their entire development and production program. According to a senior government official conversant with the troubles, plans to compete the primary and alternate engines have slipped by a year, and now will not be fully implemented until the production lot delivered in 2016.
The Obama Administration has argued since entering office that the alternate engine is a waste of money that will drive up the costs of building the F-35 for three U.S. services and nine overseas allies. Because cost is a critical determinant of whether allies remain engaged on the program, the problems GE and Rolls are encountering reach far beyond the fate of a single engine. They also underscore a point made by Senator Tom Harkin during debate about whether to fund the alternate engine: having two redundant engines increases the complexity of the program, potentially undercutting both affordability and readiness.
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