Defense Secretary Robert Gates may be losing the reality battle with elements in Congress and even some military acquisition officials over the alternative engine program for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
In an Aug. 13 press conference, Gates was asked if the large cost growth in the F-35’s F135 Pratt & Whitney baseline engine had undercut his case for abandoning the alternative General Electric/Rolls-Royce F136 engine program.
“It is one of the reasons we have over … $4 billion in the FY 10 budget to reduce the program risk, to allow for more engineers, more testing time, more airframes for testing. And obviously the engines are part of this.”
That brought howls of protest from congressional staffers where the F136 alternative engine program has found long-term support.
“$476 million – not $4 billion – was added to the FY 10 budget request for F-35, but it had nothing to do with more testing time [or] more airframes for testing engines,” said a senior defense staffer. “Engine testing is done with developmental test aircraft. The $476 million was added to adequately fund the program of record due to [the Secretary of Defense’s office’s] increased cost estimates. There was no increase in the scope of work. [In fact,] the Defense Department cut two test aircraft from the JSF. It didn’t add more airframes for testing engines.”
GE researchers have told Aviation Week that the F136 engine, because of the larger size of its combuster, has greater potential for increased power as the engine matures over its lifetime than the F135. Pratt officials dismiss the claim. That growth potential is considered an issue in the alternative engine debate along with long term competition and cost containment. Killing the alternative engine also will leave Pratt as the sole provider for the next generation of high performance engines, GE points out. Moreover, past JSF officials have bemoaned the cost of the alternative engine program – hence the congressional plus-ups to keep it in the defense budget – but they have never questioned the need for a second engine or its long-term value for the JSF program and future high-performance airframes, both manned and unmanned.
Then criticism was directed at the press for not questioning the confused explanation.
“Can’t the press wave the b.s. flag when Gates makes the answer up?” the staffer asked. “What is Gates talking about?”
Meanwhile, Air Force Magazine and the DOD Buzz blog both report that Gates called Marine Corps Maj. Gen. David Heinz, program executive officer for JSF, on the carpet and told him to stop talking about problems with F135 engine production triggered by spare parts reliability. Heinz had made mention recently of the problem and suggested, without advocating the alternative engine, that second engine programs have proved themselves in the past.