Second engine for F-35 fighter makes sense

The largest fighter plane contract in U.S. history is set to enter the production phase, with aerospace giant Lockheed-Martin front and center as the prime contractor.  Lockheed plants all over the country, including the massive one in Marietta, Georgia which will assemble the center wing section, are preparing to produce the multi-role tactical fighter.  Yet, even as Lockheed and dozens of other facilities across the country and overseas are gearing up, a major funding battle regarding the engine for the single-engine fighter continues to boil in the halls of Congress.

Production of the F-35 comes as assembly of its bigger brother — the twin-engine, air superiority fighter, the F-22 “Raptor” — nears the end of its truncated, 187-plane production run.  While both aircraft share much in common in terms of their design and stealth capabilities, the differences are significant.

The F-22 was designed in the Cold-War era, when the country’s major adversary was the Soviet Union; and critics have long claimed it is ill-suited to the current and anticipated threats facing U.S. forces around the world.  The F-35 “Lightning II” on the other hand, was designed specifically to provide support for ground forces in a wide variety of environments, such as those facing American troops operating in Afghanistan and Iraq.  It is capable of being launched from land-based sites as well as carrier-based platforms.  While smaller than the F-22 and with only a single engine as opposed to the Raptor’s massive twin thrusters, its lower cost and greater flexibility of the missions the F-35 will be able to undertake, make its eventual production many times larger than the F-22.  Current plans call for more than 3,000 F-35s to be produced for use by the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marines, and several hundred already contemplated to be sold to allied nations.

With production of the fighter imminent, why is a battle still being waged in Washington, D.C. over whether to use a single manufacturer for the plane’s engine or to have two different manufacturers produce competing, but interchangeable power plants?  The answer lies in the nature of the multi-role fighter and the sheer size of the contract.  And even though it may appear counter-intuitive to claim that spending money to produce two different engines for a single fighter will actually save money, in this case it is a valid argument.

There also is sound precedent for the competing-engine concept now being advocated by many in the Congress.  During the 1980s, when the F-16 “Fighting Falcon” (the current single-engine tactical fighter that eventually will be replaced by the F-35) was first produced, serious problems with its then-sole sourced engine (manufactured by Pratt & Whitney) manifested themselves.  The Congress then funded production of a competing, General Electric-produced engine – a move that dramatically improved reliability, safety and contractor responsiveness.

With so many of the next generation tactical fighter (the F-35) to be produced, and with so much riding on the success of the program to meet such varied needs as those presented in fighting adversaries ranging from potential superpowers to terrorist insurgents in hostile terrain, neither the United States nor our allies can afford production delays or reliability problems such as initially infected its predecessor.  Thus, the current debate whether to stick with a single, Pratt & Whitney engine, or to fund a competing engine to be produced jointly by GE and Rolls Royce.

The House appears poised to go with the dual-engine program (which the bipartisan Government Accountability Office has reported will result in considerable long-term savings) — as reflected in a key subcommittee vote last week.  The Senate is less inclined in this direction, at least at this stage; as is the Obama Administration.  Yet, in the long run, everyone, including Lockheed and the many businesses and communities participating in this massive defense program, will benefit from the two-engine approach; as will all taxpayers.

27 comments Add your comment

Mike Hagin

August 2nd, 2010
7:32 am

The F-15 is the Eagle. The F-16 is the Fighting Falcon.

neo-Carlinist

August 2nd, 2010
8:29 am

Bob, as Mike points out; check your copy. any aviation wag with History Channel knows the F-15 is the Eagle and the F-16 is the Falcon. for Navy types; the F-14 is known as the Tomcat and F-18 is the Hornet. there is irony in your screed, as you note the F-22 has its origins in Cold War tactics/strategy; whereas the F-35 (claims to be) is more state of the art. the bottom line (for budget/deficit concious Americans who are not suckling at the teat of government, and not employed in the M-I complex), the future (and past) is now. The Cold War is over. our need to invest in R&D with eyes on future cold wars with Russia and China and Russia, aside; and assuming we will not disengage in AfPak or Iraq anytime soon; we need to spend DoD funds on weapons systems and tactics developed to fight non-conventional guerilla wars. the problem is; recruiting and training “shooters” and running covert operations is “labor intensive” as opposed to the expensive and unnecessary techno-gizmos and gadgets being hawked by the death merchants. don’t get me wrong, there is a place in the world for death merchants, but why spend $50 billion on an airplane, when competent sniper and spotter team can do the job for pennies on the dollar? (retorical question).

Bill Dalecky

August 2nd, 2010
9:14 am

Bob,

When somthing appears counter-intuitiive, it usually is. Supporters of the GE/Rolls-Royce extra engine for the F-35 would have you believe that a contrived competion will save the taxpayer huge sums of money. They take the GAO study you mention and apply dubious analysis and simplistic arithmetic to claim amazing potential savings. For the facts, look at DOD’s most recent conclusion, released this Spring during congressional testimony: dual-sourcing the F-35 engine will cost $2.9 billion in additional investment with no assurance the investment can be recouped. These are funds the DOD does not have. There are few sources for such significant funds; usually only the biggest programs. And which program is the biggest target going into the future? Right, the F-35 itself!

So the truth is that Lockheed Martin and the other partners on the F-35 face the potential of slower and reduced procurment of the aircraft by DOD to pay for an extra engine the military service don’t need and can’t afford. Neither the warfighter, business community, nor the taxpayer benefit from such an outcome.

phil

August 2nd, 2010
10:14 am

Poor article title, leads casual readers to believe you’re proposing converting the F-35 to a two-engine plane (which doesn’t make any sense).

Barack

August 2nd, 2010
10:18 am

Why spend any money on the military? As the Chief Community Organizer I will negotiate arms reductions peacfuly with all our enemies. Let us spend our resources on growing Presidential Olive Branches to be disbursed around the world.

Chris

August 2nd, 2010
10:22 am

phil, it wouldn’t make sense. But it would be awesome.

Jethro

August 2nd, 2010
12:11 pm

This is one of the most entrhalling essays I have ever read about a subject so important to so many people.

Glenn

August 2nd, 2010
12:14 pm

But will the jet be able to operate in the rain .

Gerald West

August 2nd, 2010
12:44 pm

These advanced military aircraft are congressional “earmark” projects to provide jobs in select states like Georgia. These are colossal wastes of money better spent on infrastructure improvement and research, or not spent at all..

We have no enemy states with advanced aircraft. Our enemies are fanatical young in jeans and sneakers armed with box cutters.

Bob, you support useless spending like this, then complain about the federal budget deficit, and our extensive borrowing from China.

BW

August 2nd, 2010
1:20 pm

Bob

I don’t understand….does the government need to start ramping down its military spending or not? The military industrial complex is a well-paying federal welfare program. You guys cry about government overreach but you really just want the government to overreach where your concerns lie. I don’t want to see another article about govt spending programs. I thought tax cuts were to be accompanied by spending reductions….that’s what a true fiscal conservative would espouse. Both parties are cowards in that they refuse to administer the hard medicine America needs to get back on track for everyone.

Justin

August 2nd, 2010
1:38 pm

Wow Bob, this is the first time I have been disappointed in you.

But let me not understate how severely disappointed I am. You are begging for money from the military industrial complex for your state? Wow disgusting, just another big government pork project to bomb women and children. You make me and all real Libertarians SICK.

Skip

August 2nd, 2010
2:02 pm

We only spend as much as the next dozen or so countries combined. Stop starving the military.

The Udder Side!!!!

August 2nd, 2010
2:05 pm

Its Ok everybody…… Bob understands that regular folks have no idea the real cost of attempting to build two engines at the same time for a single fighter…. He understands that Joe citizen will be ok with poor in this country getting blamed for the balloning national debt while tthe top 2 or 3 percent reap the windfall of all of that borrowed money. Thats right..we Republican “Tea baggers” understands..Balnk check the MI complex and when the bill comes due, blame Obama….

MeTheSheeple

August 2nd, 2010
2:27 pm

The first few words — “largest fighter plane contact in U.S. history” — may be very wrong. I find references to nearly 2,500 F-35s expected; there were more than 16,000 P-51s made, more than 15,000 P-47s.

Jet fighter? More than 4,400 F-16s per Wikipedia, which if they were all made in 2005 would have cost apparently about $118 billion. I’m seeing references of over $300 billion for the F-35, so the “largest how” makes a difference. Most expensive? Yeah. Largest? Not by a long shot.

nelsonhoward

August 2nd, 2010
3:09 pm

Selling our most sophistcated fighter plane to other countries. That would keep others having the same sophisticated defense that he U.S. has. Canada announced Friday that they plan to buy 65 advanced F-35 joint strike fighter jets. Now, that is fine, Canada being a close ally. Where are the rest going? Spreading around the finest most sophisticated fighting machinery,I would keep the good stuff for our use. I do not make the decisions,however. I would like it put to a vote, the right to vote is protected by the Constitution.

JF McNamara

August 2nd, 2010
3:35 pm

They aren’t selling the F-22, just the F-35. The F-22 is our most sophisticated fighter.

If they haven’t uncovered the engine problems by the time the plan enters production, there likely aren’t any. It was prudent up front in case one of the engines failed in test and evaluation as not to delay production (any further than normal), now its just a welfare program for a defense contractor. If there haven’t been any problems with the primary engine so far, then the program should be cut.

jm

August 2nd, 2010
4:32 pm

Barr, you disgust me. When will Republicans wake up to fiscal discipline? This is pork barrel spending. The military doesn’t want it, so why should we? For God’s sake, let’s start being good stewards of taxpayer money. You’re setting a damn poor example. (I’d prefer to use more expletives here)

And until Republicans start admitting that tax cuts don’t fully pay for themselves (best estimates are you only get 25 cents back for each dollar cut from taxes), I’m going to continue the “a pox on both your houses” approach. Both you R’s and D’s are running our godforsaken country into the fiscal ground. Actual revolution may come if the US has hyperinflation or bankruptcy. And the Republicans will be to be blame as much or more so than dems. I guess Bloomberg for Pres.

jm

August 2nd, 2010
4:34 pm

Barr, you’re an idiot. I hope the AJC expels you. We need responsible writing to save our country from financial disaster. And you are not it.

jm

August 2nd, 2010
4:38 pm

Bob – here’s a new nickname. Bob “Bring me the Bacon” Barr. Disgusting. Which Cobb Lockheed buddy of yours asked you to write this? Sure it’ll bring jobs at a huge waste of taxpayer money.

You’re as bad as any liberal democrat. I can think of worse words to call you though. They start with a “T”. We have men giving their lives that need good safe protective gear, which the military doesn’t have enough of. And you want to waste more money on something the Military itself doesn’t want. I’m at a loss for words.

w in maietta

August 2nd, 2010
4:38 pm

I say we buy no engines for a fighter we don’t need and can’t afford…we learned no lessons from the ill-fated F-111 that DOD tried to make one plane perform three or more roles, can’t be done…Google F-15 SE Silent Eagle for a new air superiority fighter…read: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/winslow-t-wheeler and go to Primer on F-35 article

BW

August 2nd, 2010
4:53 pm

@nelsonhoward

Selling the plane itself isn’t the bad part….we will retain the state of the art avionics systems that give us the superiority we have now. We sold Iran F-14’s at one point but without the game changing equipment to go along with it they are just planes.

tar and feathers party

August 2nd, 2010
5:27 pm

DOD and BOB will bankrupt this country yet!

Divide and Conquer

August 3rd, 2010
6:56 pm

“With so many of the next generation tactical fighter (the F-35) to be produced…”
“…the current debate whether to stick with a single, Pratt & Whitney engine, or to fund a competing engine to be produced jointly by GE and Rolls Royce.”

Translation: With so much taxpayer gravy soon to be distributed, let’s make sure everyone gets their share! Sickening.

"Information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment" - BHO, May 1, 2010

August 3rd, 2010
8:03 pm

Mr. Barr — I don’t think the F-22 is going anywhere but under a tarp.

Lockheed will revive this plane under a new administration.

The Russians are still 5 years behind and the Chinese only know how to copy.

The F-35 makes perfect sense. The F-22 is built to kick somebody’s azz.

Hybrid? —— Find a way!

"Information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment" - BHO, May 1, 2010

August 3rd, 2010
8:17 pm

I posted before I read the previous comments.

The wingnuts really like Mr. Barr.

Oh…. thinkprogress dot org. What was I thinking?

Ahhhhhhhh. NOOOOOOOOOO!

Barr is a jobber, whatchamacallit, but marxism and collectivism?

HELL NO !!!!!!

Molly

August 13th, 2010
10:54 pm

A second engine will not save money in the long run. GE by far owns far more market share than Pratt & Whitney. Do you hear GE complaining about any other aircraft that they have engines on? Yet, some call it a monopoly just because one aircraft has a Pratt & Whitney engine. How could Pratt & Whitney have a monopoly when GE already has a bigger market share? I think GE is just trying to be greedy.

Also, if the USG does not really need it, then why are we wasting money? Sure, it creates new jobs, but the taxpayer’s money can be spent somewhere else that creates new jobs. For example, by purchasing more aircraft! For those who have commented negatively, would you want U.S. Solders to have a 2nd engine in a battle versus more aircraft? Who do you think would win?

Let’s use commonsense here and focus on what is right for the military, not for the companies!

Ole Guy

August 23rd, 2010
9:36 am

As with much Pentagon spending, this project is primarily a jobs machine whose primary purpose is to appease a particular voting constituency. While it is all-too-easy to cloak this program in the Flag and place it under the banner of the only means by which to secure National Defense, let us remember that the well-trained American Fighter Pilot WILL prevail in any engagement, regardless of the aircraft he commands.

As for dual source vs single source…ALWAYS have a dual source program in any major procurement. To do otherwise only invites additional problems on top of the issues which are sure to arise.