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Existing threats to U.S. national security are shifting and new ones are materializing. From Russian’s war in Ukraine to Chinese designs on Taiwan, as well as other emerging sources of geopolitical tension, the potential for conflict is on the rise.
It has therefore become imperative that our military maintain its tactical and technological edge and improve its state of readiness, especially in the aerospace realm. This requires fielding an air weapons platform that can establish uncontested air superiority as rapidly and effectively as possible.
The need for this capability was clearly and dramatically displayed recently in Ukraine. Russia’s inability to establish firm control of the airspace in the opening days of their invasion has proven extremely costly to them. We cannot count on any potential adversary making that mistake again, and therefore need a primary fighter jet that can not only meet that challenge from a technological standpoint, but that can be ready and available in sufficient numbers to do so.
For the United States Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and many of our allies, that platform is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Considering how important it is to our overall defense posture, decisions concerning this aircraft and its fielding need to be made solely on the grounds of what is best in terms of readiness and tactical advantage. Unfortunately, it appears that this may be overshadowed by the usual bureaucratic nonsense that so often seems to guide such discussions in the nation’s capital.
There is currently a push by some in Washington to scrap the existing F-35 engine and start from scratch with a whole new one, known as the Adaptive Engine Transition Program (AETP). The crux of the issue is that the current engine needs to be upgraded in order to meet new thrust, power, and thermal management requirements. As conditions and threat environments change, so do the performance metrics of the systems we have to meet them. We must be constantly improving our aircraft and aerial capabilities if we are to maintain our advantage. But we need to do so intelligently, and in a way that does not compromise readiness.
Starting from scratch with a whole new powerplant for the world’s most advanced aircraft, when a far more efficient and less expensive engine upgrade is ready and available is not the wisest course of action. Replacing the current F135 Pratt & Whitney engine will require half a decade or more and take several of these valuable aircraft offline for an extended period.
It would also require managing several engine procurement programs at once. In a press interview, a potential AETP manufacturer recently stated that their engine for the Navy’s version of the F-35 would be different enough from that of the Air Force that it would require its own independent Engineering and Manufacturing Development phase. This would only add to the potential cost and timeline.
The added cost of replacing the engine, as opposed to upgrading the existing one, will result in fewer F-35’s available to be fielded. Funding for the F-35 program is already running $1.4 billion short and Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has said that the estimated cost of developing and producing the new engine would be an additional $6 billion, which accounts for 70 new F-35 fighter jets. That is not a practical trade-off and would have devastating consequences for military communities around the country hoping to benefit from the jobs and economic impact that also come along with producing and housing the next round of F-35s.
A new engine will also greatly complicate interoperability, which is one of the primary advantages of the Joint Strike Fighter. Given the cost, it is very likely that the new engine will not be acquired by our allies or even put on the Navy and Marine Corps V-STOL versions. This means that all or some of the USAF F-35’s will have a different engine with different parts, and a different supply chain from other users of the aircraft. In a combined-arms battle scenario, this creates an entirely avoidable logistical dilemma.
All of this adds up to an idea that is at best a waste of taxpayer money and at worst compromises our defensive posture at a time when the United States is arguably at our most vulnerable. Congress was right to deny bureaucratically motivated ideas like changing out the F-35’s engine and to keep AETP funding at current levels, denying the House’s initial request of an increase of more than $500 million in funding for the program in their version of the National Defense Authorization Act. Our most potent aerial weapon system – our key to establishing air superiority – is far too important to play games with.
John L. Barry, Maj Gen, USAF (Ret) is the President/CEO of Wings Over the Rockies. He served in the United States Air Force for over 30 years as a combat fighter pilot, “Top Gun” Fighter Weapons School graduate, Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense, and as squadron, group and wing commander. He served his last tour on active duty as Board Member and Executive Director for the Space Shuttle Columbia Accident Investigation.