Procurement: Jet Engine War

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March 26, 2007: It seems that the Pentagon is trying to head off another jet engine war, and this is not a good thing. The original so-called "engine war" started in the 1980's as the Pratt & Whitney (P&W) F100 engine and the General Electric Aircraft Engines (GEAE) F110 went head-to-head for contracts to supply engines for hundreds of F-16 fighters. This war actually continues to this day, as the two firms compete over the engines for the many F-15 and F-16 aircraft still in service. The new engine war would have much higher stakes, as the P&W F135 and the General Electric F136 engines would be pitted against each other to power the thousands of F-35 fighters for the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corp and other countries. But why is the military trying to stop a second engine war?

The original war was started by the Air Force in response to manufacturing and reliability problems in the P&W F100, which powered the F-15. The Air Force hoped to use the same engine in the new F-16, but in light of these problems GEAE was asked to develop an alternate engine for the F-16, and the Navy F-14. The GEAE F110 was in production for both the Air Force and the Navy by 1986, and the war began. The engine war turned out to be "win-win" situation for the Air Force, the Navy and the taxpayer. The inherent nature of the competition resulted in both engines being highly reliable, having much improved performance, and costing less. It also provided the U.S with two sources for fighter engines, an important consideration at the height of the Cold War. Another important result of the engine war was that the knowledge and skills required to design and build military engines were maintained and passed on in two companies.

So if the first engine war was such a success, why is the Pentagon tying to stop a second one? The Air Force contends that the reliability and performance issues that spurred the first engine war are not present in the P&W F135 engine. This engine is a derivative of an engine that is already performing well, the P&W F119 that powers the F-22 Raptor. The F135 has also performed very well in ground and flight-testing in the F-35, so the Air Force doesn't feel that an alternate engine is worth the money. Consequently, no money was requested for the alternate F136 engine program in the 2007 budget, effectively killing the program. However, the British were very upset with this decision for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they are the contributing over $2 billon dollars to the F-35 program, and they weren't consulted about the engine decision. Secondly, the F136 is being jointly developed by General Electric and British owned Rolls-Royce. This could be worth billions of dollars in sales for British firms, over a 20-year production run. Fortunately, after pressure from the British and General Electric, Congress restored funding keeping the F136 alive for now.

The Pentagons stance on the alternative engine program could turnout to be a perfect example of "penny wise and pound foolish". By trying to save the millions of dollars to develop and field the F136 it could cost our country billions down the road because of the lack of competition, and shrinking the knowledge and manufacturing base required to design and build military jet engines. It also might cause us to lose a war someday.

 


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