Growing cooling needs and problems in the F-35 fighter may require an additional $38 billion engine overhaul. Cooling is critical to heat trace management.
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Lockheed Martin’s F-35 may need $38 billion in additional engine overhauls in the coming years to meet increasing cooling requirements for its radar and other components, according to government auditors.
In its annual report on the F-35 acquisition program, the world’s most expensive weapons system at $412 billion, the US Government Accountability Office [GAO] said on Tuesday: “The cooling system is overloaded and requires the engine to operate outside design parameters. The extra heat increases engine wear, shortens its life, and adds $38 billion to maintenance costs”.
Without an effective solution, engine repairs could happen sooner than expected, adding a new task to the Pentagon’s $1.3 trillion estimate to operate and maintain the F-35 fleet over 77 years.
According to Bloomberg, the engine problem is related to the “power and thermal management system,” which transfers pressure from the plane’s single engine and directs cooling flow to other components. The more air pressure is transferred, the higher the engine’s ability to run at high temperatures.
The GAO noted that the power system, based on specifications designed years ago by a Lockheed subcontractor, could not handle the cooling requirements of the aircraft’s increasingly complex avionics, such as the AESA radar, as well as new capabilities installed or planned for 2035 during an existing upgrade program called Block 4.
The GAO’s annual report also revealed that the cost of the Unit 4 upgrade rose another $1 billion to $16.5 billion, delaying half of Lockheed’s 2022 jet deliveries.
On the plus side for Lockheed, the international profile of the F-35 has never been higher. Global interest has grown since Russia invaded Ukraine and amid rising tensions with China. South Korea said it wanted more planes, and two US Air Force F-35 units began deterrence patrols over Europe. Twelve military units around the world have declared the F-35 combat-ready.
Asked about the cooling system issue before the Government Accountability Office report was released, Lockheed said in a statement that “capabilities continue to evolve with customer needs and efforts are being made to account for and support those requirements.”
Lockheed said the original design specifications for the power system were drawn up by a team including Lockheed, Pratt & Whitney, General Electric Co, Rolls Royce Plc, and government representatives.
The US is the largest customer
Before the release of the GAO report, the US Department of Defense’s F-35 Program Office said in a separate statement that the service life of F-35 engines, including Block 4 upgrades, is expected to be reduced by up to 20% because operate at higher temperatures than originally designed.
The main engine “hot section” of the US Air Force F-35A is projected to require an overhaul every 1,600 flight hours instead of the specified 2,000 flight hours. The US Air Force is the F-35’s largest customer.
The Pentagon’s F-35 program office said “We are now confident we can minimize” the potential $38 billion impact with a new “engine core upgrade.” It was also stated that multiple options are being considered and in early design to improve the cooling system. Both improvements are expected to be implemented in the early 2030s.
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