Air Force Reduces Exhibition Flights on New F-35 Engine Woes

The Air Force F-35 jet team that performs at air shows around the world has had to scale back appearances this year. The problem: a growing shortage of engines because of longer repair periods, some due to previously unreported shortcomings with engine blade coatings.

The Air Combat Command that controls the F-35 demonstration team late last month cut the number of 2021 shows by eight performances, or about one-third, to ensure the flying doesn’t aggravate a worsening service-wide shortage of Raytheon Technologies Corp. engines.

The engines on A-model F-35s have been running “hot,” or close to the limits of their design, and that heat has caused premature cracks, or delamination, of turbine blade coatings. That’s required the engines to be removed or repaired earlier than anticipated, aggravating an already backlogged depot system. The cracks in the coating aren’t a flight safety issue, but they reduce an engine’s useful life, said a defense official.

The Pentagon’s F-35 program office has briefed Defense Department acquisition leaders that, in the most extreme case, up to 20% of Air Force F-35s will lack engines by 2025. It’s a number that assumes corrective actions underway will be ineffective, or can’t be executed by the service, program office or Raytheon’s Pratt & Whitney engine unit, according to two defense officials.

The Air Force is working “diligently” with the F-35 Joint Program Office and Pratt & Whitney “to resolve supply and maintenance issues” with the engine, according to an Air Combat Command statement. Reducing air show performances will help “ensure the Air Force has enough engine capacity to meet operational requirements,” it added.

$398 Billion Program

The previously unreported engine issue is just the latest complication with the $398 billion F-35 program that the Pentagon must contend with. President Joe Biden’s defense secretary, retired General Lloyd Austin, is likely to recuse himself from any F-35 decisions because he served on Raytheon’s board until mid-January.

The engine issues are also under review by congressional auditors.

“We are currently writing a report that discusses engine problems --among others,” Diana Maurer, a Government Accountability Office director, who oversees the agency’s work on defense maintenance and sustainment, said in an email. “The engine sustainment problems are potentially so significant that we broke off a separate review just to focus on what DoD is doing to address them.”

The Pentagon’s annual F-35 Selected Acquisition Report estimates the U.S. will spend $66.4 billion on the F-35’s engine program. While the cutback in air shows is the most public signal of the engine’s problems, the concerns aren’t just affecting the flying team. The longer times in the engine repair depot are putting a pinch on Air Force jet engines across the service, according to the defense official. The Air Force has taken delivery of about 270 of a planned 1,763 F-35s.

F-35 spokeswoman Laura Seal said in a statement that the Pentagon program office is “working closely” with the Pratt & Whitney unit to “resolve supply and maintenance issues.”

Seal said the program office early last year began to see a confluence of two troubling trends -- a decrease in the number of F-35 engines returning to units in a timely manner after repair and an increase in “unscheduled engine repair requirements” from “premature distress of rotor blade coatings in a small number of engines,” causing delaminations. The blades had to be replaced.

The program office and Pratt & Whitney “have identified and are implementing aggressive solutions to both of these issues,” she said. They are “expanding F-35 engine repair depot capacity” and “concurrently implementing engineering solutions that will keep engines deployed longer before needing maintenance or replacement.”

Pratt & Whitney spokesman Kevin Anthony said in a statement that “collectively, we are pursuing multiple initiatives aimed at accelerating capacity growth and maturing the global” maintenance, repair and overhaul network to exceed program requirements. The company also recognizes the challenges that the engine program’s “sustainment structure is presenting as the fleet matures, and continues to collaborate with” the Pentagon on a solution, he added.

The team of F-35 pilots seeing their public performances scaled back are assigned to the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. Their current schedule shows them making appearances from Cocoa Beach, Florida, in April to Toronto in September. The F-35 team is separate from the Air Force’s signature Thunderbirds demonstration team, which flies F-16s.

While they serve as envoys of the Air Force and the U.S. military more generally, the F-35 jets are considered combat-ready, and their pilots can be called on for overseas deployments when necessary.

Lieutenant Colonel Malinda Singleton, an Air Force spokeswoman, said in an email that the service is experiencing a shortage of engine sections, or modules, and facing a maintenance backlog but added that “F-35A units are not currently experiencing operational mission impacts.”

Pentagon spokeswoman Jessica Maxwell said in an email that senior acquisition and sustainment leaders “are tracking issues affecting F-35 engine readiness.”

The engine issue will be discussed at an “F-35 Commanders’” conference at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, attended by three- and four-star generals and Pratt & Whitney officials, on Feb. 17.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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