Alternate Engine Questions and Answers | Citizens Against Government Waste

Alternate Engine Questions and Answers

The WasteWatcher

Q: Why has Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) opposed the alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF)?

More than a decade ago, CAGW and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW) led and won the fight to eliminate the first attempt to fund an alternate engine for the JSF. 

The engine had support from enough members of Congress, despite opposition from the Department of Defense (DOD) and independent analysts, that funds had been earmarked for it beginning in fiscal year (FY) 2004.  Over the objections of former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and the Pentagon, legislators ultimately added $1.2 billion million in earmarks for the engine.

CAGW’s arguments against the alternate engine were echoed in a March 22, 2007 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.  The GAO stated that the DOD did not request funding for the alternate engine in its FY 2007 budget submission because “no net cost benefits or savings are to be expected from competition,” and “low operational risk exists for the warfighter under a sole-source engine supplier strategy.” 

Remarkably, many of the same arguments against the alternate engine still apply to the current attempt to circumvent opposition by the Pentagon and independent analysis to the newest effort to fund an alternate engine for the JSF.

Q: Why is an upgraded engine necessary?

The scope of the JSF’s mission has changed over time, and most new batches of F-35’s acquired come with new capabilities.  The upgrades in the latest version include advanced electronic capabilities, improved targeting, and extra missile capacity.  These changes have necessitated increased electrical power and cooling capacity in the engine. 

The DOD identified two paths forward for the JSF.  It could upgrade the existing Pratt & Whitney engine through the Engine Core Upgrade (ECU) program or fund a second engine built by General Electric (GE) through the Adaptive Engine Transition Program (AETP).

Q: Why did the Pentagon choose the ECU over the AETP?

Breaking Defense reported on March 13, 2023 that the DOD’s FY 2024 budget request will include $245 million for the ECU and shutter the AETP.

Crucially, the AETP will not meet the needs of the entire JSF fleet.  It is incompatible with the Marine Corp’s F-35B variant, and would require substantial airframe modifications to fit into the F-35A and F-35C.  Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall reiterated this point on March 10, 2023, saying the Air Force was the only service that was “seriously interested” in the second engine, and that it would be “very, very difficult, if not impossible” to incorporate the engine into the F-35B.  Secretary Kendall also noted that the price tag of an alternate engine would mean the Air Force would be able to purchase fewer JSFs.

Secretary Kendall revisited the issue during an April 18, 2023 Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, stating that the AETP would require, “…a large upfront cost associated with engineering, manufacturing and development.”  Funding the AETP would necessitate “several billion dollars before you start production.  So that was definitely something that was not affordable.”

Q: How much will the ECU and AETP cost?

Secretary Kendall testified in April 2022 that it would cost $6 billion to get the AETP engine into production.  Specifically, the Air Force estimates upfront AETP development costs would be nearly $6.7 billion, which is 279 percent more than the $2.4 billion development cost for the ECU projected by Pratt & Whitney.  The engine manufacturer determined that the ECU would save $40 billion in total JSF program lifecycle costs for several reasons, including avoiding a duplicative production line and global supply chain to service two separate engines.

Despite annual increases in spending, the DOD’s budget is stretched thin.  The Pentagon has correctly identified areas in which it could reduce spending in order to invest in higher national security priorities, often raising the ire of members of Congress who are primarily motivated by parochial concerns. 

The JSF program is one such area where savings can be achieved.  It has faced innumerable delays and cost overruns, with total acquisition costs now exceeding $428 billion, nearly double the initial estimate of $233 billion, and projected lifetime operations and maintenance costs of $1.727 trillion.  Given the JSF’s track record, it does not make sense to make it even more expensive. 

Q: Are there any safety implications with the alternate engine?

Introducing a new engine to a single-engine aircraft could jeopardize pilot safety.  In their July 22, 2022 letter, 35 members of the House of Representatives expressed concerns with introducing an unproven engine to the F-35, writing, “[t]o our knowledge, the Department [of Defense] has never put a new centerline engine in a single-engine aircraft without twin-engine learning or combat experience.  We believe the risks associated with this must be carefully considered to protect the safety of our pilots.”

Unlike the AETP, the ECU builds on proven technology already demonstrated by the F135.  In the last 20 years, Pratt & Whitney has delivered more than 1,000 F135 engines that have safely amassed more than 600,000 flight hours, “or 1 million, if you count the safety record of the F119 engine it was based on.”  It does not make sense to incorporate an engine that has never been flight tested when the Pentagon has a cost-effective option that builds on combat-proven technology.

Q: Doesn’t CAGW support competition?

As an organization that has been fighting waste in defense spending since it helped expose the $436 hammer and $640 toilet seat in the mid-1980s, CAGW has always favored competition, but not duplication.  A second version of defense programs does not magically lower costs or improve military readiness.  And the funding mechanisms for upgrading the JSF’s engine are different from the incentives that drive the free market.  In this case, the government is footing the bill for the duplicative development and design costs as well as production and maintenance.

Building a second engine would also create a second supply chain, complicate maintenance and sustainment, and divert money from much-needed modernization efforts across the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.  It would make the JSF program, which already suffers from a poor readiness rate, even harder to maintain.

Furthermore, proponents seem to forget that there was a competition to see who would provide the engine that concluded in 2001, and the Pratt & Whitney engine won.  There is no alternate airframe, no alternate landing gear, and no alternate cockpit.

Q: Are proponents of the alternate engine correct that it will lower costs?

A decade ago, multiple studies mandated by Congress showed that projected savings from competition for the alternate engine were unlikely to occur.  Taxpayers would have to foot the bill for two design teams, two production lines, two sets of spare parts and everything else associated with the engine, obviating the potential for saving money through competition.

Q: Wouldn’t there be non-financial benefits, like a stronger industrial base?

GE is one of the largest suppliers of military and commercial engines in the world.  At a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 15, 2006, then-GE Aviation President and CEO Scott Donnelly said, “I don’t think anybody’s ever said that GE’s going to shut up shop and go home if they’re not part” of the JSF contract.

The same is true today.  GE will continue to serve as a major defense contractor without the AETP.  In any event, national security spending should never be misconstrued as a jobs program.

Q: What happens next?

Unfortunately, as they did by earmarking $1.2 billion for the first alternate engine, members of Congress are highly unlikely to allow the second alternate engine to fade away.  Legislators will in all probability attempt to override the Pentagon’s wishes by providing earmarks for the AETP in the FY 2024 defense authorization and appropriation bills.

While it would be in the best interests of taxpayers for legislators to heed the Pentagon’s wishes and move forward with the ECU, given the history of support for a wasteful second engine, the issue may not be conclusively settled in the near term.  But members of Congress at least cannot now claim to be unaware of the arguments against the alternate engine.

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