General Electric and Rolls-Royce are ending the F136 program after deciding to discontinue self-funding the alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

The move comes after an Oct. 31 meeting between GE Aviation leadership and Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in which “it became clear that the [Defense Department] would not support the FET self-funding effort,” says GE. Although not surprising, given the department’s termination of the F136 development effort in April, the decision ends a 15-year effort to mount a competitive challenge to Pratt & Whitney’s incumbent F135 engine for the Lockheed Martin F-35.

Industry representatives have long surmised that the JSF’s total engine work was worth around $100 billion, although proponents of the competition also have argued that the jockeying could cut 15-20% over the life of the program. In the end, then, both teams appeared to be eyeing $40-50 billion of work.

The end of the F136 also could have potential implications for the future strategic balance of power between the two former fighter engine partners and the United Technologies Pratt & Whitney company as they position themselves for development of so-called sixth-generation combat engines. In light of the recent realignment between Pratt and Rolls over commercial engines, and the establishment of a new joint venture between them for development of future civil turbofans, the once inconceivable notion of the two joining forces on next-generation military engines may not be too far-fetched.

With almost 80% of the development complete at the time of the Pentagon’s termination announcement, and with about $3 billion in federal funding already spent on the effort, GE and Rolls had both vowed to continue the fight by self-funding the F136 through fiscal 2012. However, GE says Carter’s position “made future progress on the F136 development program difficult. In addition, the status of the federal budget has created greater uncertainty for the overall JSF program.”

Before the Pentagon terminated the program, six F136 development engines had accumulated more than 1,200 hr. of testing since early 2009. GE says that throughout its development time “the FET consistently delivered on cost and on schedule, and was rewarded with high marks by the Department of Defense in a successful joint venture between GE and Rolls-Royce.” No current jobs will be lost as a result of the decision. All F136 staff related to the development program will be reassigned to other projects.

The F136, while technically advanced, will now be sidelined and GE and Rolls will pursue separate competitive paths to future sixth-generation combat engines through the Air Force Research Laboratories’ Adaptive Versatile Engine Technology (Advent) program and other research efforts. As both GE and Rolls hold patented technology within the F136, the engine cannot now be further developed or derived for alternate uses such as Long-Range Strike concepts.

GE and Rolls together have announced that the termination decision is final and even if a self-funded development proposal for fiscal 2012 is supported in a joint House-Senate defense authorization bill, the companies nonetheless would no longer pursue it.

Engine proponents in Congress, particularly in the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), had been working to keep the Pentagon and White House from permanently dismantling the F136 effort, potentially by shifting most or all of the remaining development costs to the industry team. But the White House has opposed the engine since the George W. Bush administration, and efforts to keep the program alive have been overshadowed by greater spending and efficiency concerns.

The companies say they “are deeply gratified by earlier HASC support.” The former team members add that “circumstances have changed and there is not a business case for self-funding the F136 development.”

The unprecedented military engine relationship between GE and Rolls stretches back to March 1996 when Rolls-Royce (then the new parent company of Allison) joined the GE/Allison team to develop and produce the YF120 cruise engine as an alternate engine for the various JSF aircraft then under consideration. It also became a partner in the GEA-FXL engine, the lift engine being proposed for the lift-plus-lift cruise variant of the short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing version of the JSF then under study.

The full partnership was ratified later that year when the government’s program office selected the YF120 engine for the JSF Alternate Engine Program. Under the original plan, Allison was to provide components and technology for the core and low-pressure turbine while Rolls was assigned to design and manufacture the fan module.

In 1997, at the behest of Congress, the Pentagon structured the GE-Rolls program to enter production four years after the P&W engine and, in 2002, GE and Rolls formed the Fighter Engine Team to develop the engine, by now renamed the F136.

Timeline of GE-Rolls F136 Program:

1995: For reasons of commonality with the P&W engine for the F-22, the Pentagon directs the P&W engine concept to be used during the JSF aircraft downselect process. P&W becomes the uncontested primary JSF engine.

1996: Congress provides initial seed money to GE to study a competing engine. Rolls joins GE on the engine program.

1997: Congress further funds GE-Rolls and directs the Pentagon to ensure a full-development program is launched. The Pentagon structures the GE-Rolls program to enter production four years after the P&W engine.

1999: The Pentagon introduces “plug-and-play” engine interchangeability, whereby the competing engines are designed to the same external dimensions for easy changeout of engines.

2001: P&W awarded $4.8 billion full-scale development contract (system development and demonstration, or SDD) for the F135 engine.

2002: GE-Rolls create a joint company, the GE-Rolls Fighter Engine Team, to develop and produce the F136.

2000-2005: Development work continues on F136. Successful “core” engine test and fan rig tests in 2000; first full-engine runs begin in 2004.

2005: GE-Rolls is awarded $2.4 billion full-scale SDD, with completion set for 2013.

2006-2009: Each year in its budget request, the Pentagon seeks to cancel the F136, citing budget constraints. Engine funding restored each year by House and Senate support.

2009: First “production-configuration” F136 engine goes to test.

2010: A so-called Nunn-McCurdy cost-and-schedule breach of the overall JSF program results from costs growing beyond 50% of plan. P&W’s development costs forecasted to grow to $7.3 billion. For the fifth year, the Defense Department cancels the GE-Rolls program. In May, the House “authorized” to restore funding for the fiscal 2011 budget. However, the 2011 budget process was not completed during 2010, and moved into the next year. Six F136 development engines run, preparing for flight tests in 2011.

2011: In a dramatic turnaround by lawmakers, coming after the November 2010 elections, the House votes in favor of a proposal that removes F136 funding from the 2011 continuing resolution funding the government, and the F136 is terminated by the Pentagon. A self-funded F136 development effort plan is pushed forward by the House Armed Services Committee. But continued uncertainty in the development and production schedules for the overarching JSF program lead GE and Rolls to discontinue the self-funded effort.