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.