What did you do in the Great Engine War, Daddy?

Even with everything else going on this weekend, I’ve been trying to make sense of last week’s LockMart vs. P&W spat over the future F-35 propulsion solution. Summary: SecAF Frank Kendall has made it clear that the US Air Force prefers to address the F-35’s thermal management limitations (not well defined but clearly serious) with P&W’s Engine Core Upgrade (ECU) of the F135 engine, rather than with an all-new, variable-cycle engine (based on GE’s XA100 or P&W’s XA101).

In an interview with Breaking Defense at the Paris show, LockMart F-35 boss Greg Ulmer crossed both Kendall and the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO), pointing out the obvious: that the all-new engine would not only address the cooling problem better, anticipating future needs, but would improve the F-35’s range. (A specification that was set when the PLA-AF was flying bootlegged 1950s Soviet kit.) But he went on to call P&W’s solution “short-sighted”.

These were fighting words for P&W, and F135 program boss Jen Latka and senior RTX lobbyist Jeff Shockey one-upped Ulmer, accusing LM of trying to delay or undermine the hyped-but-secret Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) effort – now pushing towards a source selection ahead of the next presidential election – in order to extend the “longevity” of the F-35 program.

Why should LM – at this point – start lobbing rocks at what Kendall and the F-35 JPO have made clear is their chosen solution? Let’s look at what LM and other stakeholders want, and why they want it.

The USAF, in my view, wants the ECU because it has a large and growing F-35 fleet that is burdened with the thermal problems, which reduce engine life and (some documents indicate) set limits on sustained flight speeds at lower altitudes. ECU should be quicker to develop and produce and easier to retrofit, which is particularly important given that the existing fleet is already heading for a big and expensive makeover, to standardize the TR3+Block 4 avionics. Nobody’s publicly estimated how much the latter project will cost or how long it will take, but a new engine would surely push the renovation work deep into the 2030s.

The Marines want ECU because they believe that the new engine will not fit on the F-35B (GE disputes this, but in any event it adds a boatload of non-recurring cost). The US Navy – have you heard anyone in the USN say anything nice about the F-35C lately?

The international operators with TR2+Block 3 aircraft are already wondering how to explain the avionics retrofit bill to their national treasuries. The idea of an all-new engine makes them wake up screaming.

P&W has had a clear strategy for the best part of two decades: be the sole-source engine supplier for the F-35. That’s why they successfully lobbied to kill the GE F136 in 2006-10. ECU development and production of retrofit power modules will be sole-source contracts. With RTX (Raytheon) having acquired United Technologies in 2020, after UTC absorbed Collins, the combined company has even more of F-35, including its complex helmet and the EO-DAS all-round thermal imaging system. And it’s going for more, with Collins trying to boot Honeywell’s Power & Thermal Management System, one of the single biggest subsystems on the airplane.

All that business will be much more juicy for RTX than competing with GE to power NGAD – which is not a lot of jets, maybe a few hundred by 2040 and probably non-exportable, even if it survives.

Incidentally, P&W in lobbying for the ECU over a new engine is recycling falsehoods from the anti-F136 campaign, Latka stating in a Washington Post advertorial that “the Department of Defense held competitions for the F-35’s propulsion system—in 2000 and 2011—and Pratt & Whitney won the bid in both instances.” I’ll take Things That Never Happened for $500, Pat. In mitigation, Latka, who was in high school when Congress mandated that a single-engine fighter that was to replace most of the US combat fleet should not depend on one engine type, is likely being let down by her comms staff.

What does LM want? Clearly, to push F-35A more into the NGAD space – possibly, because they know AF wants to break out of their fighter monopoly and so they won’t win NGAD, while the new shiny object eats the fighter budget. Or because they think NGAD will fail or be hugely delayed, which is entirely possible, particularly if the USAF insists on extreme LO, supercruise, range, and agility. 

The first lesson is that nobody seems to believe that Kendall’s plan (plus F/A-XX) is going to work, much less feed everybody in the business. The second is that despite the stress of Paris, when even the George V/Mercedes-limo elites are getting worn down by long days, nasty weather, and late-evening customer events, people shouldn’t model their conflict resolution in the manner of Debbie Gibson and Tiffany in that classic of the movie art, Megapython vs. Gatoroid

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *