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Pentagon, Air Force double down on engine technology

Feb. 24, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Weighing Millions
The Pentagon's 2015 budget request indicates the Air Force plans to invest heavily in new engine technology. (Staff Sgt. Robert Barney / Air Force)
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In his preview of the Pentagon’s 2015 budget request, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made a clear statement that the Air Force plans to invest heavily in new engine technology.

“We also recommended investing $1 billion in a promising next-generation jet engine technology, which we expect to produce sizable cost-savings through reduced fuel consumption and lower maintenance needs,” Hagel said in his Feb. 24 speech. “This new funding will also help ensure a robust industrial base, a very strong and important industrial base — itself a national strategic asset.”

The request for $1 billion for new engine programs came as a surprise to budget observers, who have been focused on potential cuts to whole platforms. Announcing a major investment, particularly in the research and development realm, was unexpected.

While Hagel did not offer more details on the engine technology, Dr. Mica Endsley, chief scientist of the Air Force, indicated in an interview that the funding would be focused on the service’s Adaptive Engine Technology Development (AETD) program.

AETD is focused on developing a “sixth-generation” fighter engine which could provide better fuel-burn rates. At the core of the program is a move to a design with three streams of air, allowing more flexibility for pilots to operate at varying conditions.

“That was one of the things that we saw recently, and I think it’s a good investment,” Endsley said. “You have to approach it like a business — are we going to get a good return on investment on these activities? That is one that I think you will get good return on investment when you look at the lifeycle cost and fuel usage.”

Endsley, who has focused on engine technology since she took office last June, hopes programs like AETD can see “a 25- to 33 percent” improvement in fuel efficiency. Given that the Air Force is the largest consumer of fuel in the federal government, those level of improvements would net huge returns.

“Those are investments that are worth making if it can save us that money in fuel costs,” Endsley said. “There are a lot of benefits you can get out of those kind of investments. So I think there are a lot of our technology investments that can also help us with our costs over the long run, but you have to make those upfront investments to be able to do that.”

Getting that money is the challenge, which is why the support from Hagel is so powerful — especially in a budget environment where whole platforms are being cut.

“I think there are certainly some people who understand” the need to invest in research and development, Endsley said. “I think they realize that not only is it really important for our national defense, but it also flows into the economy. It has a lot of benefits — it’s a matter of getting it through that process, the political process, that I think is a challenge.”

The $1 billion investment is a major boon for the engine industry.

“We are very interested and excited,” Jimmy Kenyon, general manager for next-generation fighter engine programs at Pratt & Whitney, said. “As an engine company, seeing that engine tech is that high on the secretary of defense’s list is really kind of underscores the importance of what we do to our nation and for our military customers. It really is gratifying to see that called out as such a priority.”

Pratt is one of the companies involved in the AETD program.

We want to see this technology move forward,” Kenyon said. He noted comments Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force Chief of Staff, made at last week’s Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium about the need to start thinking of sixth-generation fighter technology. “We see this as critical to be able to do that.”

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