The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter may be the future of the force, but as Lockheed Martin and the U.S. Air Force work to find ways to reduce not only procurement costs but also the immense expense associated with day to day operations, the capabilities the aircraft can bring to bear in a combat zone are adjusting as well. Pratt and Whitney, keen to capitalize on the endeavor’s push for a more cost-effective iteration of the fighter, now has a proposal for the F-35’s expected upgrade timeline that allows for the inclusion of interesting (and not yet entirely realized) weapons and defensive systems that could make the next generation fighter even more advanced than it already is.
Notably, Pratt and Whitney aim to improve the electrical power output and thermal management capabilities of the fighter’s engine — offering better fuel economy, increased thrust, and potentially reducing the infrared signature created by the engine’s operations. The upgrades, which would come in two blocks, or stages, would also produce enough electricity for the aircraft to operate directed energy weapons like lasers. Lasers in such an application could serve as an extremely effective missile defense weapon — finding and destroying inbound missiles before they have a chance to shoot down the plane.
These upgrades wouldn’t actually represent cost savings to the taxpayer, however — but what Pratt and Whitney can offer, per their claims, are these increased capabilities at just about the same expense as the spending model that’s already in place.
The new engine would be a direct drop-in replacement for the existing F135 power plant that currently drives the fighter, and according to Pratt and Whitney, no modifications would be required to any other system aboard the aircraft to support the increased efficiency and power output. However, further changes could be made to capitalize on the energy surplus created by the use of the more efficient engine.
“There’s more we can do with Lockheed Martin and other suppliers if we go outside the engine, but this is all within the engine,” said Matthew Bromberg, president of Pratt & Whitney Military Engines
All told, the upgrades would offer a 5% reduction in fuel output while increasing thrust by as much as 10%. This is of particular significance beyond reducing the fuel costs of operations — it could also help to bolster the F-35’s overall operational range. The U.S. Navy is currently working to find a variety of ways to stretch the range of carrier-based aircraft to counter the presence of hypersonic anti-ship missiles like China’s DF-21D, which has a range of nearly 1,000 miles. With a current operational range of between 1,000 and 1,600 nautical miles (depending on the variant), the F-35 can only engage targets at a maximum range of 500 to 800 miles before having to turn back with enough fuel for the return flight. An increase in the range of 5%, while not enough to cover the remaining distance, could bolster other range increasing endeavors like the use of drone refuelers or even refueling on austere, hastily prepared fields (commonly called “hot loading”).
The Pentagon has not agreed to Pratt and Whitney’s proposal thus far, but Pratt’s executives seem confident that they’ll come to an understanding.
“As the F-35 program moves forward with the Continuous Capability Development and Delivery strategy, we strive to stay in front of propulsion advances needed to enable F-35 modernization,” Bromberg said. “We’re continuously assessing customer needs and responding with technology options to keep them ahead of evolving threats.”
Featured image: F-35s flying in formation. | U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christine Groening
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