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March 15, 2023

Pratt & Whitney F135 engine gets big boost in Biden budget

LOCKHEED MARTIN PHOTO The new defense bill provides money for 79 F-35s with Pratt & Whitney engines.

President Joe Biden’s budget proposal would help protect tens of thousands of Connecticut jobs at Pratt & Whitney as well as its suppliers by supporting the modernization of the F135 engines for fighter jets.

The decision by the Air Force to not continue the competition to find an alternative would save $6 billion and preserve 27,000 jobs at Raytheon Technologies’ Pratt & Whitney, according to U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District. He has helped lead the push for making upgrades to the company’s existing engines that power the F-35 joint strike fighter.

Pratt & Whitney, which is headquartered in East Hartford and has a facility in Middletown, is one of the state’s largest manufacturers with a supply chain made up of about 100 suppliers. Larson said 38 of those suppliers are in his Hartford-based district. The company was awarded a Pentagon contract 20 years ago to produce the engines used by Lockheed Martin’s F-35 aircraft.

“We will not rest on our laurels, but this was an enormous win for the state of Connecticut and the supply chain and all of those who work in some form at Pratt & Whitney,” Larson said in a Tuesday interview.

“We know that usually investments in industry — and they are our largest manufacturer — have a 4-1 payback in terms of what it does for the economy,” added Larson, who is the co-chair of the bipartisan Joint Strike Fighter Caucus.

At a Monday briefing about the budget proposal, Acting Undersecretary of the Air Force Kristyn Jones said about $254 million has been requested for Pratt & Whitney’s Engine Core Upgrade effort. She acknowledged that the cost to develop and produce an engine replacement would fall entirely on the Air Force since it would not be needed by the Navy or Marine Corps.

Because it is part of Biden’s budget request for fiscal year 2024, Congress will still need to allocate and authorize those investments as it negotiates funding for the federal government through either a short-term bill or larger appropriations legislation.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, who is the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, will play a major role in crafting the next appropriations package when money dries up at the end of September. In a statement, DeLauro noted that she helped secure about $200 million over the past two years that went toward the F135 engine.

“This is a win for the warfighter, and for the taxpayer, as Pratt & Whitney has reduced the cost of the F135 engine by 50% since production began while improving performance to twice its original specifications for years,” DeLauro said. “The F135 program is a major driver of economic growth in Connecticut and around the country, and I am thrilled to see President Biden’s continued support of it in his 2024 budget proposal.”

Last year’s government funding package supported higher procurement of F-35 aircrafts as well as an increase of $75 million for F135 engine enhancement and modernization.

As negotiations kick off around the current budget, other members of Connecticut’s delegation have influential committee posts where this matter is likely to come up. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, is the second-highest Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, while Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., is on the Senate Armed Services Committee. And Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., now sits on the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

Competitors like General Electric wanted to open up competition for a replacement engine for F-35s. Both GE and Pratt & Whitney received contracts in 2016 as part of the Advanced Engine Technology Program (AETP) to develop prototypes. But the expected costs associated with a new program complicated the Air Force’s plans.

“This budget fails to consider rising geopolitical tensions and the need for revolutionary capabilities that only the XA100 engine can provide by 2028,” a GE spokesperson said in a statement provided to Breaking Defense, referring to its AETP prototype. “Nearly 50 bipartisan Members of Congress wrote in support of advanced engine programs like ours because they recognize these needs, in addition to the role competition can play in reducing past cost overruns.”

Larson and dozens of other members that also included Courtney,  Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, and Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th District, wrote a letter last July to the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment about the engine competition.

They raised concerns about Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall’s past testimony to find a replacement engine through AETP, which the signatories argued would be “costly and risky.” The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers expressed a similar sentiment in a letter to Biden in support of the Machinists Union members who build F135 engines.

“Modernization of an existing fighter jet engine is a normal occurrence as capabilities and requirements change and does not warrant the risk and cost of a complete engine replacement,” the July letter reads. “As the program begins to shift from development and production to long-term sustainment, we believe that now is not the time to initiate a complete engine replacement program.”

This week’s proposal reverses the Air Force’s initial decision and would make Pratt & Whitney the sole contractor of F135 engines.

Larson said it could “mean additional employment opportunities” around the state as the company meets the new demand. He noted that with Russia’s ongoing invasion in Ukraine, NATO allies are requesting more F-35s.

“We need to step it up in terms of the orders that we need to fill and what we have to do around the globe, because people see what an effective deterrent it is,” he said.

The news comes as another Connecticut-based defense contractor is poised to get a major boost from an international security pact between Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. (AUKUS).

Australia would initially buy three Virginia-class submarines and could buy two additional attack vessels that are built in part by General Dynamics’ Electric Boat, which has a facility in Groton. The first delivery of submarines to the country could happen in the early 2030s, pending approval by Congress.

The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Engage CT.

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