January 18, 2006
Protests over JSF engine cut
By Michael Fabey and Andrew Chuter
Times staff writers
Plans to scrap the alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), which have drawn protests from Britain, America’s main partner for the plane’s development, are likely to cause angst among U.S. lawmakers too, a government aviation analyst says.
The Pentagon wants to kill the backup F-35 engine being developed by U.S. engine-maker General Electric and Britain’s Rolls Royce, a move the Defense Department estimates will save about $1.7 billion through 2011.
Rolls-Royce has a 40 percent share of the $2.4 billion F136 engine development program, with GE Aviation doing the rest.
The Rolls-Royce development effort is split about evenly between its engineering facilities in the United Kingdom and the United States. A cancellation would adversely affect engineering staff on both sides of the Atlantic.
No commitment had been made on where Rolls-Royce would place production facilities, but one British industry source said the bulk would likely have been in the United States.
The prospect of losing billions of dollars of revenue has drawn Prime Minister Tony Blair into the fight to save the engine. In December, Blair wrote a letter to President Bush and followed that up with a video conference call, the Financial Times reported Jan. 12.
The Pentagon may get the same reaction in Congress.
“Attempts to cancel the JSF alternative engine will likely encounter strong opposition from congressional supporters,” Congressional Research Service analyst Christopher Bolkcom said. “History has shown that competition among manufacturers can be a powerful tool in keeping costs in check and improving manufacturing quality.”
That was part of the idea of developing a backup program for interchangeable engines in the first place, Bolkcom pointed out.
“By abandoning a sole-source model and creating a competitive environment, Congress, DoD and the U.S. taxpayer benefited from less expensive, more powerful and more reliable engines, better contract terms and warranties, protection against work disruptions,” he said.
The two companies may have to pin their hopes on the program being reinstated by Congress, the British company source said.
“The two-engine approach for JSF was mandated by Congress. In the past, Capitol Hill has been very strong on engine competition. The engine wars between Pratt & Whitney and GE on aircraft like the F-16 have, over time, produced significantly greater value for the customer,” the source said.
The industry source said this is not the first time cancellation of the F136 had been on the agenda.
“It’s not a done deal. We have been here before; every year its future has been subject to review of some kind. It’s understandable some may see the development of a second engine as a luxury, but the F-136, with its newer technology, offers better growth potential than its rival, and its availability will ensure better value for money,” the source said.
The question, the industry source said, is: “Do we take it out of the program completely, do you slow it down or just put it on hold?”
I worked on that for a while...that would be a year of my life down the drain work-wise if they cancelled it.