This week we’re talking about F-35 engines.
No, not the sustainment issues plaguing the current F135 engine fleet, but the follow-on engine.
We know what you’re thinking: WTH does the U.S. military’s newest fighter need a new engine?
The reality is the F-35 isn’t that new, though.
In fact, the requirements that defined the engineering for the F-35 — including the engine specifications — were written 22 years ago.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the defense, business and technology newsletter, The Merge. With articles penned by actual former fighter pilots, The Merge has a simple goal: They make it fast and easy for you to make sense of defense.
To learn more about The Merge and sign up for the newsletter, go to their website here.
Similar to how you trade your phone every few years, the F-35 has had three technology refreshes (TR) to keep up with the times.
The latest, called TR-3, brings a new processor, more memory, a new cockpit display, and an open systems architecture — all to support a suite of software and hardware upgrades known as Block 4.
FYI: Block 4 is a massive $15 billion (with a B) modernization program encompassing 53 capability upgrades to the F-35. So, yeah, it’s pretty big.
What this has to do with engines: Unfortunately, all the classified goodness in the glossy brochure won’t actually work in the current F-35 because the existing F135 engine has two big issues:
- It won’t be able to provide enough electrical power to run all the upgrades
- It won’t have the cooling capacity to keep all the fancy new hardware from overheating
There are two options on the table.
Option 1: Update
Pratt & Whitney — maker of the current F-35 engine — is pushing an engine core upgrade called the Enhanced Engine Package.
The Good: The updated F135 engine will fit in all F-35A/B/C variants.
The Bad: The core upgrade solves the thermal management issue but not the potential electrical power issue.
The Ugly: P&W thinks this upgrade will keep the F-35 happy through 2070. For those who don’t do math, that’s predicting capability 48 years into the future…from the same company that failed to predict the current engine-capability problem 22 years ago.
Option 2: Upgrade
P&W-rival General Electric is pushing its adaptive engine; a next-generation three-stream design called the XA-100 that can transition between modes optimized for thrust or range.
The Good: 100 percent more cooling, along with 25 percent more fuel efficiency and approximately 10-30 percent more power.
The Bad: P&W is on the same Air Force R&D adaptive engine contract as GE and says these new engines are also approximately 25 percent heavier — that’s 1,000 extra pounds of aft CG on the F-35. Oh, and an adaptive won’t fit in the F-35B.
The Ugly: I’ll need another $6 Billion (at least) to get the engine out of R&D and into production—but that’s just the engine. There’s still the airframe integration work, the development of new flight control software, and the massive flight sciences test bill to get through before it can be fielded. Slim chance you’ll see this operational before 2030.
OBTW: The Air Force might not be able to foot the bill and the jury’s out if the Navy or any coalition partners will help split the check (since this engine is a deviation from the F-35 program configuration, the JPO doesn’t pay for it).
The Air Force says it’s crunching the numbers now, and we expect a decision in six months when the Pentagon delivers its FY24 budget request to Congress.
While “Block 4” capabilities are probably needed, it doesn’t necessarily mean all 53 capability improvements need to be squeezed into the F-35.
Moving some of the power/cooling-hungry capabilities to a Combat Collaborative Aircraft (CCA) would permit full-yet-distributed “Block 4” capabilities in a manned-unmanned team without the expense of a new F-35 engine.
This article was originally published on The Merge. Sign up for their newsletter here.
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