The most expensive military project of all time the F-35 joint strike fighter is facing yet another problem, that could potentially slow down jet delivery to the US Air Force and other clients.
Five years after declaring the F-35 ready for combat, the Air Force is discovering the aircraft’s Pratt & Whitney F135 engine takes longer to maintain than originally projected.
A heat-related issue is also causing cracks in the F135’s fan blade coatings. If left unchecked, the problem could reportedly ground up to 20% of the Air Force’s F-35s by 2025.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a single-engine jet fighter designed for both air-to-air and air-to-ground combat. The F-35’s engine, the F135 afterburning turbofan, produces 28,000 pounds of thrust, or 43,000 pounds of thrust with afterburner on.
The F135 powers the entire F-35 fleet, including the Marine Corps’ short vertical takeoff and landing -B model, allowing the aircraft to take off vertically if needed.
The F135 Heavy Maintenance Center at Tinker Air Force Base isn’t processing engines and getting them out to the jet fleet as fast as anticipated, Bloomberg reported.
It’s also unclear how many flight hours the F135 engine of the F-35 fighter jet can fly, but they assume it’s about 26,000 flight hours.
A single aircraft might use multiple F135 engines over its lifetime, flying one engine until it needs depot-level maintenance and then requisitioning a new one. Each engine for the F-35A costs approximately $10.8 million; the more complex engine for the F-35B costs $24 million.
On top of it all, the engine issue appears to steadily be getting worse. Defense News estimated that 5-6% could lack engines by 2022, and then the worst-case scenario would be a 20% lack by 2025.
The engine is produced by Pratt & Whitney, part of Raytheon. And it said that it is expanding repair depot capacity and “implementing engineering solutions that will keep engines deployed longer before needing maintenance or replacement.”
To fill the gap, the US Air Force is grounding its F-35 demonstration team.
The team, which is assigned to Hill Air Force Base at Utah, is normally a part of the 388th Fighter Wing and flies the F-35 at air shows across the country. The team has canceled its appearance at several air shows due to the engine issue.
The engines work fine, but they don’t want to add flight hours on them.
The Air Force plans to purchase 1,763 F-35As over the lifetime of the program. The cost of the jet has been steadily dropping, from $297 million for the earliest jets to just $77.9 million in 2019.
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