An F-35A from Edwards AFB, California, flies on Feb. 7. (Lockheed Martin)
WASHINGTON — Despite ongoing restrictions on the fleet of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, the Air Force’s top general warned against being “alarmist” when discussing the fifth-generation jet’s engine.
“Pratt & Whitney has been making pretty darn good engines for single-engine airplanes for a long time for the United States Air Force,” Gen. Mark Welsh, service chief of staff, told reporters during a media briefing. “What we found in the program so far, with these almost 9,000 sorties so far, is this engine works pretty well, too. That day it didn’t, and we need to figure out why.”
“It would be a little alarmist to assume we have a problem with the F-35 engine,” Welsh said. “The F-35 is the answer, the only answer, to ensure future air campaigns are not a fair fight.”
“That day” that Welsh used refers to June 23, when a fire broke out on an F-35A model at Eglin Air Force Base. The fleet has since been inspected, grounded, missed a pair of major airshows in the United Kingdom, and been allowed to fly again under heavy restrictions. It’s yet to be determined when the fleet will be given an all-clear.
Asked whether he wishes he had an alternative to the Pratt-designed F135 engine, Welsh said: “I’d like to have 1,763 F-35s with an engine that works real well every single day. That’s the goal.”
Like Welsh, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James characterized the fire as an unfortunate, but isolated, incident.
“It’s not unusual in a development program to have something like this happen,” James said. “I think we are all very optimistic we will be working through it. I do not see this in any way as a show stopper.”
Welsh and James were speaking as part of the roll-out for their new strategic document, called “America’s Air Force: A Call to the Future.” That document provides a roadmap for how the service can react more quickly to constantly changing threats and technology, a topic James touched on in her opening comments.
“Instead of focusing on a specific threat we’re trying to focus and recognize this quick pace of change and we have to recognize ourselves the imperative that we be able to change as well,” James said. “Strategic agility is what we’re shooting for.”
James also acknowledged that change doesn’t come easily in the Pentagon.
“This whole concept is going to take time to instill into a big institution like the Air Force because I don’t know that we’re known for being enormously agile at the moment,” she said. “But you have to start somewhere.”
As they have done for the last year, Welsh and James highlighted the service’s three largest recapitalization projects: the F-35, KC-46A Pegasus tanker, and long-range strike bomber. The need to keep those three on track led to the decision to try and retire the A-10 “warthog” close-air support plane, a move that has met ferocious resistance on the Hill.
The secretary acknowledged that pushback and indicated that her service needs to do a better job showing “consistency” to members of Congress. Not coincidentally, the need for better communication with members of Congress is part of the new strategic plan.
She also indicated the service would again create multiple budget options, as it did with the FY 2015 budget. The multiple budgets will cover a range of what-ifs, including the possibilities that the FY 2016 budget is and isn’t sequestered.