F-35 engine builder braces for increased sustainment costs

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Many F135 engines built by Pratt & Whitney will be heading to the depot for maintenance in 2023. (File)

MIDDLETOWN, CT: Pratt & Whitney, the company that makes the engine for the F-35 stealth fighter, has a big, costly problem – and no easy fixes in sight.

By the mid-2020s – just as the Pentagon expects maintenance costs for the F-35 to drop sharply – the first F135 engines used by the aircraft will reach 2,000 hours and be sent to the depot for a scheduled overhaul.

As the company takes steps to keep the cost of this maintenance as low as possible, it is inevitable that engine maintenance costs will increase in the mid-2020s, said Amanda Glode, maintenance manager at Pratt & Whitney. for the F135.

This, in turn, will make it harder for the F-35 program to achieve a long-standing goal: to reduce the cost per flight hour to $ 25,000 by 2025.

“If we think about the life cycle cost of a program, sustainment is the biggest part of that life cycle cost, and scheduled maintenance is the biggest part of that sustaining cost,” said Glode to reporters on Tuesday.

“We’re just in a different part of the program lifecycle than the rest [of the program] is, ”she said. “Unfortunately, our costs are going to increase” in the mid-2020s, “as we increase our scheduled maintenance to the exact point where US services and the entire program want costs to go down.”

Explaining this reality to the stakeholders of the F-35 program – which include the US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, a multitude of international customers and skeptical lawmakers on Capitol Hill – has been a challenge for the company, he said. declared Glode.

Pratt & Whitney invited reporters to its F135 production facility in Middletown, Connecticut on Tuesday in hopes of changing the narrative around the cost and performance of the F135.

Throughout the tour of the facility, Pratt officials consistently stressed that the upcoming cost increase was not the company’s fault. Instead, they pointed to unexpected wear and tear due to operational use, inconsistent financing of spare parts, repeated delays in setting up maintenance depots and the normal rolling of engine overhauls, which generally fluctuate when engines reach milestones of use.

And while these are all reality-based justifications, this post will likely be met with skepticism from members of Congress and Pentagon officials who want to cut costs on the famous budget program, regardless of where it comes from.

Earlier this year, the Pentagon revealed that the F-35 company was facing an engine shortage, leading some lawmakers to suggest that the Defense Department open a competition for more advanced engines to replace the F135. . But while Congress may want a quick fix, the problems of motor shortage are manifold and difficult to solve.

First, the F135 Heavy Maintenance Center at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, was unable to repair the power modules as quickly as expected, creating a backlog of work. Second, some aircraft that frequently operated in hot, sandy environments were grounded after the coating on the engine rotor blades cracked and degraded.

Pratt & Whitney has developed a new coating that has been incorporated on approximately 25% of the F-35 fleet, mostly jets recently rolled off the production line. But it could take until 2030 for all jets in service to be modernized, said Katherine Knapp Carney, the company’s chief engineer for the F135 program.

Lt. Gen. Eric Fick, who runs the F-35 program on behalf of the government, told lawmakers in July that 41 US Air Force-flown F-35As were down and awaiting engine repairs, along with five others. Additional F-35s. also unusable due to engine problems.

Three months later, there has been little improvement: On Friday, the number of Air Force F-35As stranded due to propulsion problems stood at 42 jets, according to an Air Force source with knowledge of the program.

Glode acknowledged that the current F135 maintenance strategy clearly does not meet customer needs and that Pratt & Whitney needs to make improvements in the area of ​​affordability. However, the company is meeting the program’s requirements for the number of F-35s broken down for engine issues, she said.

Under its current contract, Pratt & Whitney is obligated to ensure that no more than 10% of F-35s are broken down due to engine problems, with 6% being the target number. Historically, the company has “beaten” the target number, with just 4% of the fleet generally not capable of mission due to engine problems.

The F135 engine seen during a test drive. (To file)

With around 9% of planes currently down because of the engines, Pratt & Whitney is still technically within the thresholds of its deal with the Pentagon, even if it falls short of the target, Glode said.

“It’s a big part of the challenge we face today is that people don’t appreciate the fact that this was the way the program was designed,” she said.

“We are very comfortable working in any construction required by the customer, and we have certainly encouraged the [Pentagon’s F-35 joint program office] working with partners and services to try to understand what a ‘voucher’ looks like and how they want to change the program, ”she said. “We hear and understand the comments that what is being done today is not satisfactory, but we cannot go and change the program ourselves. “

Even though money is pouring in to speed up work at Tinker’s F135 depot, to set up additional maintenance centers elsewhere, to purchase additional engines, and to change the maintenance architecture of the F135, it will take time for that to happen. these changes take effect and for the lagging engines to subside, says Glode.

“The repository network is about five years behind in terms of where it should have been based on the design and architecture of the program, largely because the funds were diverted earlier into the program because there were other needs, ”she said. “Sustainment just didn’t get the budget it needed in a timely manner. “

Future hopes

There are some signs of improvement at the depot, said Jen Latka, Pratt & Whitney’s vice president for the F135 program.

Tinker’s depot produced just 14 power modules last year, but is on track to “significantly” exceed its target of 40 modules in 2021, she said. And while it took over 200 days on average to repair a power module in 2020, workers at the depot have started to hit the “aggressive and realistic” 120-day target that will remain the target for the to come up.

The pressure on the filing will be even higher once the engines start arriving for overhauls scheduled for 2023, so Pratt & Whitney is trying to take action now so that future work can take place as quickly and inexpensively as possible. , officials said.

For the F135 – which has titanium rotors and handcrafted components to the thousandth of an inch – the main cost drivers during maintenance events are parts and materials, Latka said. Therefore, Pratt & Whitney focused on performing engineering work and developing repairs that allow service technicians to replace fewer parts during overhauls.

“It’s not a matter of work,” she said. “This is not going to shake things up in terms of cutting costs on the engine.”

Another long-term effort is to continually improve parts and manage the fleet so that engines can stay in flight for longer periods of time without having to be sent to depot for scheduled or unscheduled repair work, Glode said.

However, she noted that there will be additional costs in the mid-2020s even if the company finds ways to reduce maintenance expenses.

“We are trying to curve the curve and reduce the slope. It’s never going to go away, ”she said. “It will never be flat. It’s just the nature of propulsion, it comes in sine waves as scheduled maintenance comes and goes.


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