Common Sense and the Joint Strike Fighter Engine

Engine development has been key to the successful delivery of new aircraft systems since the dawn of aviation. From the Wright Brothers’ innovative 12-horsepower engine, to World War II-era propellers, to the gas turbine and its opening of the jet-age, the engine has been a critical element in achieving ever-increasing aircraft performance. Nowhere is this more evident than in the design of a high-performance fighter jet such as the Joint Strike Fighter.

In order to meet the propulsion system requirements for JSF, technology is being pushed to the limits of performance and operability. The baseline engine is a state-of-the-art accomplishment, but the risks associated with producing, operating, and supporting such an innovative device are daunting. Without taking anything away from that baseline engine, past experiences, not to mention simple common sense, suggest that retaining a competitive engine environment with more than one supplier throughout the life of the JSF program will be to the war-fighters’ great advantage. Such a competitive approach can capitalize on different engine performance characteristics while retaining common interfaces, and will drive the technology to ‘best-of-breed’ capabilities for the aircraft as a whole. By providing more than one propulsion solution, operators will be able to reduce technical and operational risk and realize measurable benefits in performance. A second engine source is also an insurance policy; problems in one engine type will not ground the entire fleet. And despite claims from the Administration and others who have forgotten history, competition will reduce overall procurement costs across the life of the program, as rigorous data-driven studies have shown. That’s just basic capitalism.

We have been down this road before. The fighter engine competition of the 1980’s, sometimes known as the “Great Engine War”, showed that having more than one supplier leads to faster solutions to operational problems. The Air Force supported a second supplier for the F-15 and F-16 after dissatisfaction with the initial sole source product. The competing engine contractors were constantly trying to find ways to differentiate themselves from each other. This resulted in enhanced durability, reliability, technical support, and better pricing from both suppliers. The same will happen in a JSF engine competition. An enduring annual competition will allow DoD and the JSF Program’s eight partner nations to select the optimum solution based on technology, cost (both procurement and sustainment), overall performance, and capability. In so doing, the operators, the federal government, and the taxpayer will enjoy all of the classic benefits of competition. In addition, the competition will ensure the sustainment of a high technology industrial base and the thousands of highly skilled jobs within the US that will be needed to support current and future advanced systems.

As a propulsion engineer, and former Chief Scientist of the United States Air Force, who has spent his career pursuing technological solutions to complex military system requirements, I find the Defense Department’s opposition to funding the F136 rather perplexing. It is even more so because we have already made most of the required initial investment; the “alternate” F136 Development Program is currently about 75% complete. Additionally, the JSF engine competition clearly meets all of the tenets of Defense Acquisition Reform, and is consistent with the 2009 Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act passed by Congress and signed into law by the current Administration.

The JSF will be the largest defense acquisition program ever, and the only significant fighter acquisition for many years to come. Given the demands of its propulsion system, it seems only logical that there be more than one option for the JSF. We should leverage the investment already made in the F136, complete the development, and embark on a continuing competition. Accepting anything less would be a disservice to the taxpayer and the war fighter.

Dr. Mark Lewis is the Willis Young, Jr. Professor and Chair of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Maryland and a former Chief Scientist of the United States Air Force.