Pratt & Whitney will be the sole provider of the F135 military jet engine. COURTESY / Lockheed Martin
The F-35A Joint Strike Fighter
The F-35A Joint Strike Fighter Lockheed Martin photo

Washington – The quality of Pratt & Whitney’s F-135 engine – and the company’s supply chain – came under scrutiny Tuesday by a key Senate panel  as part of a review of the status of the problem-plagued Joint Strike Fighter program.

“I’m particularly concerned about the performance of the F-135, given that Pratt & Whitney was recently selected to build the engine for the B-1 (bomber),” said Sen. Joe Donnelly, whose home state of Indiana lost a bid to build an alternative to the F-135 engine through a partnership between General Electric and Rolls-Royce.

Donnelly also said he was concerned about Pentagon reports of “recurring manufacturing quality issues that have been an issue for Pratt & Whitney for the F-135.”

Testifying at the Senate Armed Services hearing, Air Force Gen. Christopher C. Bogdan, head of the Pentagon’s F-35 Lightning II Joint Program, said the fault was “primarily not at the Pratt & Whitney level but at the suppliers level.”

“Nevertheless, Pratt & Whitney is responsible for those suppliers,” Bogdan said.

Pratt & Whitney has hundreds of suppliers, both inside and outside Connecticut. The ones responsible for the engine’s problems were not identified.

While Pratt & Whitney is the sole supplier of the plane’s engine, Lockheed Martin is the main contractor on the program

Responding to the testimony, Pratt & Whitney spokesman Matthew Bates said, “We have also significantly improved the quality performance of our supply base through a robust surveillance and audit process, which helps to ensure potential issues are uncovered and addressed as quickly as possible.”

“As a result, we have reduced supplier quality escapes by 80 percent in the past four years,” Bates said. “We are also using multiple sources for critical parts, which lessens the potential for any single point of failure from within the supply chain.”

Besides Pentagon criticisms of the engine’s performance, the independent General Accountability Office in March also cited problems with the F-135 engine.

“While Pratt & Whitney has implemented a number of design changes that have resulted in significant reliability improvements, the F-35A and F-35B engines are still at about 55 percent and 63 percent, respectively, of where the program expected them to be at this point,” the GAO said.

The F-35A is the Air Force version of the plane and the F-35B is the Marine Corps version, designed for short takeoff and vertical landing.

On Tuesday, Michael J. Sullivan of the GAO told the Senate panel, “We have found that as far as engine reliability…Pratt & Whitney has been consistently below where they were expected to be, but it seems they are improving in that respect.”

Pratt & Whitney said performance has been much improved.

“At present, F135 mission availability averages nearly 95 percent, which means typical maintenance activities can be performed with the engine still installed in the aircraft without any significant impact to the mission,” Bates said.

He said Pratt & Whitney has delivered 273 engines, “and we are meeting our performance, delivery, and affordability commitments.”

Discussion of the F-135 engine came during a scathing assessment of the Joint Strike Fighter program as a whole.

“It’s been a scandal, and the cost overruns have been disgraceful,”  said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

McCain also said there are questions about “the total number of (F-35s) the nation should buy or even afford.”

The source of one key glitch, the F-35s computerized radar program, has been found, Bogdan said. But the Air Force will still have to push back its planned mid-summer certification of the plane by at least two months.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., was one of the few members of the panel to defend the performance of the F-135 and Joint Strike Fighter.

“We should expect a weapons program of this complexity to have a few bumps in the road,” Blumenthal said.

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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