The competition of the next generation of “fighter” engines for the Air Force is changing the status quo
The US Air Force recently handed over contracts to five different companies, each one with a maximum value close to $1 billion, for work related to the Next Generation Adaptive Propulsion Program, or NGAP. This engine is expected to power at least the sixth generation of manned stealth fighter aircraft now being developed as part of the Next Generation Air Domination effort, or NGAD. The fact that Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are among the recipients of NGAP contracts demonstrates that the Air Force is opening up to new potential engine suppliers and underscores the ongoing competition over the overall design of the next-generation manned aircraft that these engines are expected to bring to power.
The Air Force Lifecycle Management Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio awarded NGAP contracts on August 19, according to the Pentagon’s daily contract announcement. Each of these prizes was valued at $975 million. In addition to Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, General Electric and Pratt & Whitney have also been awarded NGAP contracts.
The essential details of all five contracts are described in essentially identical fashion in the Pentagon notice, each of which partly states:
“[The contractor] An indefinite/indefinite delivery contract was awarded with a program cap of $975,000,000 for technology maturity and risk mitigation activities through design, analysis, rig testing, engine prototype testing, and weapons system integration. The contract is to implement the prototype phase of a next-generation adaptive propulsion program and is focused on providing the capability that enables propulsion systems for future air dominance platforms and digitizes the industrial propulsion base. Work… expected to be completed by July 11, 2032.
None of the NGAP entries were mentioned in the Pentagon’s NGAD notice or work on an actual aircraft. However, only General Electric and Pratt & Whitney are makers of fighter jet engines. They are also the main suppliers of engines for US military combat aircraft.
So awarding contracts to Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman is interesting on a number of levels. Not least the fact that the Air Force is looking to explore the potential benefits of direct competition for engines between these companies, which are very likely to compete for the manned fighter jet airframe component of NGAD, General Electric and Pratt & Whitney.
In June, Air Force Secretary Kendall revealed that “we still have competition” regarding the development of the NGAD manned aircraft, but did not go into details. At the time, Kendall also said he expected the project to go through a very traditional development and acquisition process. The comments came on the heels of an announcement earlier that month that this part of NGAD’s manned combat aircraft segment had entered the engineering, manufacturing, and development (EMD) phase. In aviation, among other industries, EMD is generally considered the official start of development for a particular system.
NGAP is also part of NGAD, which is made up of a group of different projects that seek to develop various next-generation tactical air combat capabilities, including new weapons, sensors, networks, and battle management capabilities, as well as manned and unmanned aircraft. Although billed as a combat aircraft, the sixth-generation manned aircraft will be unlike previous fighter designs. By all accounts, the design will place stealth, range and payload together above maximum maneuverability.
Specific details about the proposed NGAP engines, or the aircraft they might enter in the future, are still very limited details. The entire NGAD program is also highly rated.
The Air Force has in the past revealed a direct link between the Adaptive Engine Transmission Program (AETP) and NGAP. General Electric and Pratt & Whitney developed advanced engines under the AETP, known as the XA100 and XA101, respectively. Although the designs differ in the details, both engines feature a “third stream” of air flow that can be dynamically switched between dedicated modes to increase fuel efficiency or performance, depending on the situation. You can read more about AETP and the designs of the XA100 and XA101 here.
The AETP’s immediate focus was the development of potential new engines for variants of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. On that front, as it stands now, General Electric is calling for the F-35 to be restarted with XA100s, or their replacements or derivatives. The company said the XA100 will increase the range of the F-35A and C variants by up to 30 percent, as well as boost acceleration and fuel economy by about 20, 40 and 25 percent, respectively. All of this, of course, will depend on specific uploads, task profile, and other factors.
Pratt & Whitney is currently proposing a less intense upgrade to the F135 engines found in all existing and in production joint attack fighters rather than the XA101 propulsion. Pratt & Whitney also manufactures the F135.
Air Force Secretary Kendall has announced his support for the full replacement option, although he stressed that this is his personal opinion. The F-35 Joint Program Office is still studying options, and cost and compatibility issues are likely to be major factors. Importantly, virtually none of the AETP engine designs, at least as they exist now, would fit virtually inside a variant of the F-35B capable of vertical take-off and landing. The B versions have stricter design limitations when it comes to their internal configuration having large vertical lift fans and hinged engine exhaust nozzles, which any new engine must also be integrated with.
At the same time, the Air Force also warned of the potentially serious negative effects on the industrial base of American jet engines if none of the AETP options were followed.
“Part of the industrial base is going to start to collapse,” John Sandin, who directs the AFLCMC’s Payment Directorate, told reporters at a news conference earlier this month. Defense News. “If we end up with one vendor there, if we don’t move forward with AETP, that vendor can actually get us to a place where we have, essentially, a low-development manufacturing base.”
“We need a resolution, which I am at right now,” Secretary Kendall said separately to a gathering at the Potomac Officers Club in July when asked about the AETP, according to the Air Force Magazine. “I don’t want to limp in spending on research and development [research and development] Money for a program either we can’t afford or we won’t come to an agreement between the different services.”
With all this in mind, it is not surprising that the Air Force is interested in expanding its potential field of engine suppliers and seeks to foster competition among the expanding group of companies. This does not rule out the possibility of different degrees of interaction between NGAP contract holders, or others, when it comes to this program, as well as the Air Force’s future Sixth Generation Fighter and other elements of the NGAD program.
While Air Force Secretary Kendall has spoken on multiple occasions in recent months about wanting to move away from high-risk development cycles of never producing anything tangible and back to traditional acquisition programs, he has left the door open to more new approaches at home. This context. Simply requiring new companies to propose engine options for NGAP, and actively exploring supply chain and other considerations that go along with it, could lay the groundwork for potentially having long-term benefits for the US jet engine industrial base.
No matter what, when it comes to NGAP, as well as the aircraft those engines go into, the outcome of a winner-takes-all is highly unlikely. Some of the R&D work done by the “losing” companies on any of these projects could still be incorporated into the final designs as part of a larger team effort. Doing so can help speed up engineering and acquisitions, as well as spread the burden of cost and risk. GE and Pratt & Whitney would be in excellent positions to provide critical production capacity even if their designs didn’t win either.
On these last points, funding the development of AETP engine variants or derivatives, for any company, as part of NGAD, would simply provide an additional hedge against any course of action regarding the F-35 to restart the Air Force, as well as the Marine Corps or the Navy, eventually. At least in the past, it has been understood that a decision on whether to move forward with AETP for the Joint Strike Fighter is expected to come no later than 2024. This is also when the Air Force is expected to choose: to design one For the manned component of NGAD.
Various plans suggest that if the AETP course of action is chosen, at least some F-35s could begin receiving engines between 2027 and 2030. This would be fully in line with expectations, as stated in the Pentagon’s contracting notice, that the completion of Initial phase of NGAP work by 2032.
Finally, it remains to be seen what comes from the NGAP effort, and the broader competition surrounding the populated component of the NGAD program. How the AETP decision regarding the F-35 might affect any of this remains an open question as well. The Air Force has talked in the past about the possibility of variants or derivatives of the AETP design finding their way into older fourth-generation fighters as well.
What is clear is that there is very active competition regarding the NGAD “fighter” project, including its engine. NGAP contracts separately show that there is a definite potential to further disrupt the status quo when it comes to operating these and other aircraft.
Finally, the Air Force continues to steadily lay the groundwork for eventually having whatever design it chooses as a next-generation combat aircraft into service in 2030.
Contact the author: email@example.com