F-35 Engine Upgrade Should Help, Not Hurt European Allies | Opinion

When I served as the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) based in Vienna, it was plain to see how over 50 member countries valued American leadership to help promote peace, freedom and prosperity on the continent.

From a military perspective, that extends well past our continued troop presence in places like Germany, where I was stationed during the Vietnam War, but also to our aerospace and defense industry which has fostered interoperability among our allies since World War II.

America's premier example of operating alongside European allies is our F-35 Lightning II, the world's most sophisticated stealth fighter jet made by Lockheed Martin and supported by U.S. partners Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems and Pratt & Whitney. It's been so successful, 14 nations fly them with eight in direct partnership and six via Foreign Military Sales (FMS). That list is growing as Germany, Switzerland, Finland and Greece are planning to join the club.

We should deeply value their decisions to work with us and "buy American" because as the Farnborough International Airshow in England beginning on July 18 will surely demonstrate, Europeans have other options in procuring advanced fighter jets. Recent history shows multiple successful partnerships between European countries. The latest is a joint venture between Spain, France and Germany on a new fighter is designed to replace both the European Typhoon and Rafale by 2040.

Between European aerospace industry competition, both internally and externally, plus with war raging in Ukraine today and the real possibility that we and our European allies could get drawn into armed conflict with the world's largest nuclear power, the U.S. should be doing all we can to support friends in such a volatile time.

Which is why it's so disturbing to see some in Congress and the American aerospace industry proposing to replace the F-35 engines with an entirely new propulsion system by 2027.

The long-term practicality of the F-35 is threatened, not by a future adversary, but by those who seek to replace the F-35's F135 Pratt & Whitney engine with a General Electric engine dubbed the Adaptive Engine Transition Program (AETP). It's a high stakes domestic industry competition with profound international ramifications that few people know is even happening.

An F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter
A F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter at the Bethpage Airshow over Jones Beach for Memorial Day weekend. Taken on May 28, 2022, in Wantagh, N.Y. Erica Price/Getty Images

While it's understandable to always seek innovation in weapons systems, everything I've read appears to indicate Pratt & Whitney's plans for modernizing the F135 engine with an Enhanced Engine Package (EEP) would be just as effective in boosting capabilities as AETP would. This solution would cost less, can be quicker to implement and will maintain interoperability with our allies—without them getting stuck with higher costs and supply chain hassles on something they didn't even get a vote on.

F-35 engine upgrades ought to help our European allies, not hurt them. Switching to an entirely new engine seems counterproductive considering it would create multiple logistics and maintenance chains for F-35 propulsion systems—one for jets built pre-2027 and another post-2027. But it gets even more complicated.

There are three versions of the F-35 to suit different landing and takeoff requirements. A newly developed AETP engine would only fit the land based F-35A for conventional runways. Not the F-35Bs designed for the U.S. Marines and allied navies deployed on small aircraft carriers, like the U.K. and Italy. Nor the F-35C used by the U.S. Navy onboard our aircraft carriers.

So who is going to pay for all these changes? Every country can only spend for its defense within its financial capabilities. An example of the impact on an ally's expense deliberations is reflected in a report in the United Kingdom of the aircraft acquisition plan for the British Air Force. Cost is a serious consideration, particularly since the British want to reserve funds for an option for a Future Combat Air System (FCAS) made by Airbus, a possible future 6th generation fighter aircraft.

NATO allies understand the need to invest in the F-35. Yet if the costs, supply and maintenance chains significantly increase, allies may have to look elsewhere.

While it's important to "buy American," domestic industry competition should help, not hinder our national security. Since the F-35 is about half-way through an expected 30-year lifespan, it makes more sense for U.S. companies to spend their time and efforts competing on engines for the coming 6th generation aircraft rather than overhauling the 5th generation mid-program.

Tensions are rising across the globe. The question now is whether conflict can be controlled, and whether any aggressor can be deterred. The F-35 fighter jet is a prime vehicle to make any would-be conqueror stop and think before initiating further aggression. Affordability, availability, and capability are the watchwords of the F-35. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

James S. Gilmore III served as the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). He was the 68th governor of Virginia and an Army veteran who served in Germany during the Vietnam War.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.