As F-35 Engine Shortage Improves, Pressure Felt In Other USAF Fleets

Pratt & Whitney F135 engine
Credit: U.S. Air Force

The U.S. Air Force has started to claw back from an engine shortage in its F-35 fleet that has grounded dozens of the aircraft, as Pratt & Whitney and the service’s depot have changed some processes and sped up production.

Air Combat Command (ACC) boss Gen. Mark Kelly said Oct. 25 that within the past six weeks the shortage of F135 engines dropped from about 48 to less than 40. This reduction comes as the Air Force has brought on more planes, making it “more than just a small improvement, it’s an exponential improvement, and I expect them to continue that trend of getting toward zero just as soon as we can,” he said.

To address the shortage, ACC has still been forced to “pull some levers” to ensure the engines are properly prioritized, Kelly said during a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies event. For example, ACC cut back on its air show schedule, especially in the eastern half of the country. 

“I can’t in good conscience fly two airplanes from Hill [AFB, Utah] all the way to the East Coast and utilize a bunch of flying hours while we have young aviators … not getting their training sorties.” 

Engine shortages are impacting other aircraft in the service’s fighter fleet. Earlier this month, the Defense Department inspector general released an audit of F-15 and F-16 engines at depots and said that a shortage is expected to last through 2024.

Kelly said there is pressure on the F-15 and F-16 engine system, but the command is able to meet its demands for now. 

“I’m not surprised one bit if there is pressure on the supply system into 2024. I would frankly be surprised if there wasn’t pressure beyond 2024. But today, as I see it, we do not have impacts to our F-16-F-15 fleet,” Kelly said.

The biggest area ACC does feel pressure in engines is with the TF-33 powerplants used in the command’s E-3 AWACS and E-8 JSTARS, along with the B-52 bomber. These engines have not been manufactured for “many, many years,” Kelly said.

“So to manufacture parts, or to find parts, is a 24/7 business,” Kelly said. “That engine and that supply chain consumes a lot more of my time and energy and concern.”

For example, Kelly pointed to the E-3’s main operating base at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma, which also houses the aircraft’s depot. 

“When my team takes an airplane from one side of Tinker to the other … before those engines cool down, our technicians are removing the engines to cannibalize them to take back over and put engines on the fleet. That is high, high pressure on the sustainment system.”

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.