After Chinese J-20, US F-35 stealth fighters will be powered by powerful new engines by 2027

The US military’s prized possession, the F-35 stealth fighter jet, could receive a major upgrade in the form of a new engine later this decade. This comes at a time when China is also introducing J-20 jets en masse with local engines.

Even though talks about its powerhouse shortcomings have been around for some time, the idea of ​​replacing the existing motor with a higher motor has been largely shelved in the past due to cost and other factors. However, Congress may be able to force the Pentagon to work out a plan to install new engines in F-35 planes by the end of this decade.

As part of the Adaptive Engine Transition Program (AETP), a brand new powertrain is being developed, with many prototypes already tested. The AETP engine, or another option, is expected to provide a significant performance improvement to the three F-35 models, in addition to ensuring greater efficiency, reported The Drive.

Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter

The AETP is a program that aims to develop lightweight, ready-to-fly prototypes of adaptive three-stream motors. Air power with improved range, reduced tanker requirements, and additional cooling air for thermal control would all be possible if such engines were deployed.

Compared to the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine that currently powers the Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter, the AETP is a US Air Force research project that aims to increase range by 30%, a reduction of 18% acceleration time. , and improved thermal management, as previously reported by EurAsian Times.

The F-35A Conventional Takeoff and Landing (CTOL), F-35B Short Takeoff / Vertical Landing (STOVL) and the F-35C Aircraft Carrier (CV / CATOBAR) all use the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine.

The engine, also known as the heart of the stealth aircraft, delivers over 40,000 pounds of thrust, an unparalleled weakly observable signature, world-class thermal management and the most modern integrated engine control system in ten military to worldwide.

Adaptive Engine Transition Program (via Twitter)

The Pentagon had announced plans to upgrade the F-35 fighter jet with a set of new weaponry, processing technology, and software over the next decade, while Russia and China developed their own fighters and systems. air defense.

The announcement came in the context of P&W presenting a study to the F-35 Joint Program office regarding an improved engine in March of this year.

F-35 Improvements

John Tirpak, writing in Air Force Magazine, cited the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2022.

The bill, which has yet to be approved by the Senate, would require the Secretary of the Air Force, together with the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, to develop a plan for installing AETP engines in the F- Avion 35A CTOL by 2027 at the latest.

From 2027, the Secretary of the Navy would work with the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment to develop a similar, but separate, plan for the addition of an “advanced propulsion system” – which could be the final design of AETP or an improved version. from existing Pratt and Whitney F135 – to aircraft carrier-based F-35B STOVL and F-35C variants.

Current F135 engines face several challenges, including a shortage of engines, overheating and rupture of turbine blades, and earlier-than-expected service requirements.

P&W F135
The P&W F135, which currently powers the F-35 jets. (via Twitter)

Defense News previously reported that it was not clear whether the Pentagon would seek to improve the existing design of the F135 or develop an entirely new propulsion system. As part of the Adaptive Engine Transition Program, the Air Force is currently evaluating three-stream adaptive engine prototypes from Pratt & Whitney and General Electric.

Prototypes of two AETP alternatives, the General Electric XA100 and Pratt & Whitney XA101, are currently being tested. These two powertrains are intended to increase the range and persistence of the jet by about 30% and 40%, respectively, while reducing fuel consumption by about a quarter.

P&W XA101
P&W XA101

Engine upgrade plans for the F-35 variants have become imperative in the face of China projecting its J-20 and the Russians projecting their Su-57, both of which are claimed to be advanced stealth fighter jets.

However, the process is not free from bottlenecks and the expense to be incurred in production and installation comes first.

Engine upgrade, but at what “cost”?

The cost of integrating any new power plant into the three variants of the F-35 could be significant, which would be problematic. The question undoubtedly arises as to whether the Air Force, which is the current largest US operator of Joint Strike Fighter, has the financial capacity to replace its existing and potential fighters with entirely new AETP engines.

Separate concerns have been raised regarding the maintenance costs of existing F-35As as well as their upgrade to the latest Block 4 standard, which includes increased radar and electronic warfare capabilities as well as the ability to carry additional missiles. Upgrades are essential for these fifth generation fighters to act as a force multiplier.

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall had previously expressed his skepticism about the new engines, arguing that a successor to the F135 should only be sought if it is affordable and not otherwise.

“If we have to, we’ll take a serious look at the cost of moving forward, like we’ve done with the rest of the program… And if it’s affordable, I wish I could continue with them,” Kendall said. said at a conference.

However, the new law, once passed, will “compel” the secretary to continue with the process.

Will the F-35As be the first to get new engines?

Lt. Gen. Eric T. Fick, program manager of the F-35 Joint Program Office, had earlier said the Air Force would be responsible for development and production expenses related to the integration of the AETP engine. in the F-35A.

The F-35A currently has a range of around 1,350 miles without refueling, which would increase to around 1,800 miles with the upgraded engine.

GE Aviation had previously said it was at an advanced stage of development of an engine that would power the F-35A, but would not be able to power the F-35B short take-off / vertical landing variant of the fighter, as reported by Air Force magazine. in September of this year.

GE XA-100
GE XA-100 adaptive motor. (via Twitter)

As part of the NDAA, the Secretary of the Navy will have to draw up a similar plan for the F-35B engines and the F-35A to add a new propulsion system that would be the final design of the AETP. This indicates that the F-35As are going to be the first variant to receive the upgrade, sometime towards the end of its decade.

Giving the F-35A longer legs, in particular, would be of tremendous benefit to the Air Force as it prepares for a potential conflict in the Indo-Pacific theater, where the Chinese PLA flexes its muscles. .

Increased range has already been identified as a “must have” feature as part of service plans for its next hunter. A longer range F-35A would not only be more suited to operations in the Indo-Pacific region, but it would also reduce reliance on air tankers. Air combat planners have always considered the availability of adequate air-to-air refueling aircraft.

The requirements of the aircraft carrier operating environment for the F-35C and, most importantly, the swivel nozzle and integrated lift motor for the STOVL F-35B mean that the challenges of integrating a new engine are bigger.

General Electric and Pratt & Whitney have previously said their AETP designs are incompatible with the F-35B. With that in mind, the NDAA may anticipate the B variant to get the improved F135 engine, while the F-35C would get the same or another variant of the new AETP engine.