Biden Administration Rejects the F-35 Alternate Engine | Citizens Against Government Waste

Biden Administration Rejects the F-35 Alternate Engine

The WasteWatcher

More than a decade ago, Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW) led and won the fight to eliminate funding for the alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).  But, like many other projects and programs that were left for dead in Washington, D.C., there have been efforts to resurrect a second engine. 

Fortunately for taxpayers, CAGW and CCAGW are once again leading the way to prevent their money from being wasted.  CCAGW won the first battle in this new fight with a March 2, 2023, coalition letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III, urging him to upgrade the existing Pratt and Whitney engine and not fund the second engine in the Department of Defense’s (DOD) fiscal year (FY) 2024 budget request or unfunded priorities list.  On March 13, 2023, Breaking Defense reported that Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said the DOD’s FY 2024 budget request will include $245 million to upgrade the existing Pratt and Whitney engine through the Engine Core Upgrade (ECU) program and close down the Adaptive Engine Transition Program (AETP) that would have funded the development of the second engine. 

During the debate over the first second engine, experts inside and outside of the Pentagon agreed that the Pratt & Whitney engine selected in the JSF competition was sufficient, and the platform did not require a second engine, under development by General Electric (GE) and Rolls-Royce.  According to a March 22, 2007 GAO report, 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.” 

In fact, competition between two rival companies trying to develop two separate engines would cost the government immensely.  To create competition, the DOD would have to underwrite two teams of engineers, as well as duplicate sets of tooling, parts, assembly sites, repair facilities, supply chains, management systems, workforces, and every other cost of production. 

Despite these objections, members of Congress for years funded the alternate engine through earmarks, which CAGW noted in its 2010 Congressional Pig Book had cost taxpayers a total of  $1.2 billion since 2004.  In March 2011, the DOD issued a stop-work order following five years of attempting to terminate the program.  In its order ceasing the program, the DOD labeled the alternate engine “a waste of taxpayer money that can be used to fund higher Departmental priorities.”

The latest version of the JSF features upgrades including advanced electronic capabilities, improved targeting, and extra missile capacity.  These improvements have driven the need for additional cooling in the engine.  GE and its supporters on Capitol Hill saw this as an opening to claim there should again be funding for a second engine, this time under the AETP.

In its March 2 letter, CAGW noted that many of the same arguments against the alternate engine in the first go-round still apply today.  Rather than spending billions of taxpayer dollars on the AETP, it would be far more practical and cost-effective to modify the existing F135 engine through the ECU. 

Secretary Kendall testified in April 2022 that it would cost $6 billion to get the AETP engine into production.  The March 13, 2023, Breaking Defense article cited comments by F135 Engine Program Vice President Jen Latka in her December 2022 briefing with reporters, when she “said ECU could increase the fighter’s range and thrust by 7 percent, double, the current engine’s thermal management and be ready to plug into the fighter in 2028.”  She also said that that the AETP engine would cost $6.7 billion, which is 279 percent more than the $2.4 billion cost for the ECU and save half of the $40 billion in total lifecycle costs that would be saved with the ECU.

The ECU is the better course to pursue for several additional reasons.  Crucially, the AETP would 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.  Secretary 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 would mean the Air Force would be able to purchase fewer JSFs.

Employing 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.  It would make the JSF program, which already suffers from a poor readiness rate, even harder to maintain.

Together with Congress, the DOD ultimately made the correct decision by defunding the alternate engine for the JSF in 2011.  While the Biden administration made the logical decision to upgrade the established engine and terminate the AEPT in FY 2024 as opposed to funding an unproven alternative, the issue is far from settled.  Members of Congress are highly likely to seek funding for the alternative engine via earmarks in the DOD authorization and appropriations bills.

CAGW and CCAGW will continue to lead the way to prevent billions of dollars from being wasted on a second engine for the JSF.

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