Joint Strike Fighter’s $100 Billion 30-Year Engine Contract Up For Grabs

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The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program is “the largest defense acquisition program in U.S. history” and it’s engine “represents over 10% of the overall program price, or about $100 billion,” according to the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA).

For the past five years, all four congressional defense committees have remained staunchly committed to a competitive F-35 propulsion system, which includes developing an alternate engine. Congress has repeatedly demonstrated that it supports competition in major defense contracts, given the resulting cost savings and innovation that typically leads to a better product. This time should be no different, particularly in light of the lessons learned from the Great Engine War in the 1980s.

After Congress voted to halt work on the alternate engine, the companies building the F136 announced they will self-fund development going forward in a program that is over 80 percent complete. 

If they stopped work now, there would be only one type of engine available for an aircraft that will constitute 90 percent of all U.S. fighters in 2035. Because it is a single-engine plane, if something goes wrong with the engine, it could lead to a system-wide grounding of every aircraft until the problem is identified and fixed–unless there is an alternative available. Such a scenario should constitute an unacceptably high risk.

Engines designed in tandem allow the military to substitute one for the other on a moment’s notice if something goes wrong. In fact, the planes themselves are designed so that either engine can be “plugged in” depending on what country or service is buying them.

Two engines are also smart policy given that the U.S. has never asked a multi-role fighter to produce more than 40,000 pounds of thrust.

Two years ago, Congress passed an acquisition reform law that demands competition for all major subsystems–including fighter engines. Congress and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have also highlighted other benefits of engine competition, including better engine performance, improved responsiveness from contractors, maintaining a healthy industrial base, increased engine reliability, and enhanced operational readiness. Further, the GAO estimates that competitive pressures could yield enough savings to offset the cost of the competition over the JSF’s program life.

Given that the Joint Strike Fighter will be the mainstay of the entire U.S. military’s fighter force for the next 40 to 50 years at nearly 2,500 planes–and up to 6,000 procured globally–retaining two engines is smart planning. Competition encourages contractor innovation and produces a better product while saving taxpayer money in the long-term.