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Pentagon plans to end competing engine development program for the JSF

January 5, 2006 (by Lieven Dewitte) - The Pentagon, seeking to curb expenses in the $256 billion Joint Strike Fighter program, plans to make Pratt & Whitney the sole supplier of engines for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet by ending a competing engine development program.

The General Electric - Rolls-Royce F136 engine [USAF photo]

The 2007 defense budget, which President Bush is to present to Congress next month, will call for termination of a contract that has the British firm Rolls-Royce and General Electric Co. building a second engine for the F-35.

Pratt is developing the F135 engine for the Joint Strike Fighter under a $4.8 billion contract it won in 2001. The $2.47 billion contract for a competing engine was awarded last August with the idea of having competition keep prices lower for U.S. and foreign buyers. Congressional proponents of an interchangeable engine also describe it as a hedge against having to ground the entire fleet in case of trouble with any one engine.

The Joint Strike Fighter is to enter service in 2012.

The change requires approval from the White House budget office and the US Congress where resistance is expected from delegations representing Massachusetts, Indiana and Ohio, where General Electric has production plants.

The Pentagon rejected an alternative approach to savings that involved dropping one of three variants of the jet. The Joint Strike Fighter, which will replace the F-16 and other aging warplanes, is designed to make conventional takeoffs and landings for the Air Force, and carrier takeoffs and landings for the Navy. For the Marines, there is a "short takeoff, vertical landing" variant.

Ending the competing engine program, which Congress ordered in 1995, would mean billions of dollars in additional sales for Pratt & Whitney. They would have a monopoly on the most popular military jet engine in the world for the next 30 years.

Pratt has a policy of not disclosing the unit price of its engines because they are often heavily discounted when sold in groups, but analysts estimate that each F135 engine would cost $5 million to $6 million.

Most of the revenue however will not come from the initial sale of the engine, but from the ubiquitous aftermarket that will last 20 or 30 years. Each of those engine parts will be replaced two or three times.

The decision could mean tens of billion of dollars in extra sales over 25 years for Pratt & Whitney. It would be a huge setback for General Electric and Rolls-Royce, which have been developing a separate but interchangeable engine. GE and Rolls-Royce are 60-40 partners in developing their version of the turbofan engine that would power the F-35.

The F-35 program will be the most expensive warplane program ever. The Pentagon plans to buy as many as 2,480 of the aircraft in three versions being developed for the US Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and the British Royal Navy.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has recently written to US President George W. Bush to try to save the multibillion-dollar contract. Rolls-Royce and GE won the development contract in July. It is due to run until September 2013.