Opinion: Why AETP Is The Best Solution For The F-35

F-35 in flight
Credit: Liz Lutz/Lockheed Martin

Washington is a town with a lot of turnover. People come and go. Maybe that is why a debate can sound as if the subject were invented yesterday, without historical perspective on what it really is or how it came to be.

I have been reminded of that recently, seeing some of the arguments regarding the U.S. Air Force’s Adaptive Engine Transition Program, which is developing a next-generation engine for the F-35 fighter. Some of those talking about it argue as if the AETP is a brand-new idea. Having worked on the program and its predecessors as staff director of the House Armed Services Committee and undersecretary of the Air Force, I can say that the U.S. has been working on and looking forward to the AETP for decades.

Why? Because it is a generational leap ahead in technology. The AETP powerplant performs like a fighter engine when needed and otherwise like an economical airliner engine.  It has already demonstrated that it can provide more range and performance and better thermal management. These are not small improvements; they are revolutionary.

So what are the arguments against it? Primarily, some persistent myths like these:

The AETP is a new idea. No. It is an advanced technology, but it is also a planned product improvement. Since the F-35 and its engine were designed more than 20 years ago, there has been a plan to take advantage of new technology all along, just as the services do with every platform. The U.S. has replaced the engines on General Dynamics F-16s, Boeing F-18s and KC-135s as well as the Boeing B-52 fleet. As aircraft grow in capability, power demands increase. And new technology lets us power these aircraft in ways that are more economical to operate. It would have been malpractice not to upgrade engine technology along with all the other F-35 improvements.

The AETP is a rerun of the F-35 alternate engine debate. Hoo-boy. Having lived through that debate on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon, I can tell you it is not even close. That debate, which culminated with a congressional vote in 2011, was about whether taxpayers should fund one company to develop an alternative to an existing production engine with similar technology. The AETP is different in every respect. It is a fully competitive program. Both Pratt & Whitney and General Electric are developing AETP engines. It is not replicating something we are already buying; it is moving military aircraft engines to an entirely new technology, thanks to advanced materials and decades of development since the last clean-sheet fighter engine. Yes, it is about improving the F-35, but the AETP is building the foundation of the future of American combat aviation.

The AETP is just another bill for the F-35 program. To the contrary, it addresses one of the most justly criticized parts of the F-35 program—the long-term operating costs of that huge fleet. Developing a new engine costs money, yes. But the AETP engines will pay you back. Because the powerplants will perform the same job so economically, taxpayers should realize a net savings in the tens of billions of dollars. I do not understand how some of the same people who bemoan the F-35’s operational costs turn around and criticize a program that actually is going to do something to reduce costs and give taxpayers money back with every flight.

The good news is that Congress has seen through these myths. Although the committee markups vary, Congress is continuing to support this program in fiscal 2023, as it has for years. And why not? It is not tough to support an engine that provides more performance and range for less operating expense. And the fact that it is a fully competitive program keeps costs in line.

As part of their oversight responsibility, lawmakers have asked for independent cost estimates of the program. If those estimates account for future savings that the AETP will provide, along with its increased range and combat effectiveness, there should be no question about its value—it is a slam dunk.

The next step is to get the excellent prototype engines out of the testing rigs and into engineering and manufacturing development. And the sooner they are into the fleet, the faster they will start paying back.

If you do not remember the problem, it can be hard to recognize the solution, even when it is right in front of you. The F-35 is going to be in service for decades. The AETP is a competitive way to make sure it remains a competitive aircraft.

Erin Conaton is a distinguished counselor at The Defense Concepts Organization, a private analytical consultancy.


1 Comment
"But the AETP engines will pay you back. Because the powerplants will perform the same job so economically, taxpayers should realize a net savings in the tens of billions of dollars."

We've seen promises like this on so many advanced technology programs.