Air chief to senators: F-35’s engine will overcome development issues

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz told senators Thursday he is confident development issues on the F-35’s primary power plant will be remedied.

The F135 engine, being developed by Pratt & Whitney, has encountered some technical hurdles in recent years. Its reliability rating is not yet where Pentagon officials would like, and its overall costs have exceeded estimates.

When pressed by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) on Thursday, Schwartz said he is confident the program soon will get beyond those technical problems.

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“Why are the cost overruns on the F135 acceptable?” Levin asked.

Schwartz replied the cost breaches are not acceptable, adding he would make “no excuse” for ballooning costs.

The air chief said the F135 contract with Pratt is a cost-plus arrangement, meaning the government and the contractor are responsible to pay for technical fixes.

“There is some cost sharing there,” Schwartz explained.

“But we are moving into an era of more fixed-price contracting,” he said, adding that on future programs that are under a fixed-cost arrangement, the industry will be responsible for overrun bills.

Additionally, the general reiterated his opposition to an alternate F-35 engine being developed by GE and Rolls-Royce.

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) asked why the Pentagon does not want the GE-Rolls F136 engine, which he contended is on schedule and within budget projections.

Schwartz responded he is not sure the alternate engine is adhering to cost and schedule plans.

If lawmakers keep the second engine effort alive, it would bring jobs to Brown’s state.

What’s more, the air chief said he and other senior Pentagon officials are confident the F136 — which was started later than the F135 program — will eventually experience the same kinds of technical issues. That will drive up its price tag and push back its delivery date, he added.

Loren Thompson, a Lexington Institute defense analyst and industry consultant, agreed with that prognosis.

“Since the GE engine was begun later and not based on any prior design, its team is not as far down the learning curve and thus is likely to produce a less reliable engine. It might catch up with the reliability of the Pratt engine after years of operational fielding, but that is not what records show from the earlier competition that pitted a pre-existing Pratt & Whitney engine against a newer GE power plant,” Thompson wrote in a recent Forbes.com blog entry. 

In that contest, “the GE engine tended to lag behind the Pratt engine in safety and reliability,” he wrote.

Alternate-engine proponents say it will save money in the long run, while also providing an operational safety net should the F-35’s primary power plant suffer a problem that grounds the entire U.S. fleet.

But the Pentagon says two engines are not needed and would cost too much right now.

DoD officials have not funded the F136 for years, but Congress each year has given it new life by adding money to annual defense budgets. The House and Senate, in separate versions of a 2011 continuing resolution, did not include funding for the F136.

“It’s a question of what we can afford to do now,” Schwartz told Brown.

The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps intend to purchase around 2,400 F-35s.