GE Aviation is transferring more than 1,000 engineers from civil engine programs to defense R&D work as its military business ramps up design and development efforts on at least six major engine programs in progress or in prospect.
Tony Mathis, president and CEO of GE Aviation’s military business, told AIN, “With the [U.S.] defense budget growing at four percent a year or so, it is creating a number of great opportunities” for GE. As GE’s major development efforts on its civil-aviation GE9X and Passport engines end, “the engineers are transitioning because we’re starting [in GE’s military-engines business] to go through what commercial went through a few years ago,” he said. That was intensive design and development of a number of engine programs simultaneously as various major new business opportunities crystallized.
Leading the way in GE’s military-engines R&D efforts are its work on the U.S. Army’s Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP) 3,000-shp helicopter engine requirement and on the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory’s two-phase Adaptive Engine Transition Program (AETP). AETP, for which GE and Pratt & Whitney have both been awarded two-phase contracts totaling nearly $1 billion to each company, calls for the development of three-airstream turbofan engine designs potentially to replace the Pratt & Whitney F135 powerplant in the F-35 and subsequently to power possible future sixth-generation U.S. Air Force air superiority aircraft.
Following a two-participant competition in which GE and the Advanced Turbine Engine Company (ATEC) joint venture between Pratt & Whitney and Honeywell were awarded ITEP preliminary design contracts in 2016, the U.S. Army awarded GE a sole-source ITEP engineering, manufacturing, and development contract in February for its single-spool T901 engine design. The award of the $517 million EMD contract signaled that the U.S. Army planned to select GE for a subsequent sole-source production contract for ITEP engines to replace the approximately 6,000 GE T700s now installed in the Army’s fleets of UH-60 Black Hawk and AH-64 Apache helicopters.
Additionally, Capability Set One under the U.S. Army’s Future Vertical Lift requirement calls for development of a Future Attack and Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA), which the Army expects also to be powered by the ITEP engine. As a result, Mathis estimated that the ITEP program will be worth some $20 billion over its life, including aftermarket support.
However, ATEC formally protested the award of the ITEP EMD contract to GE, immediately sending the U.S. Army’s ITEP decision to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) for a 100-day review. GE Aviation was ordered to stop work on T901 development, and ITEP R&D remained dormant until May 30, when the GAO notified GE and ATEC that it had denied ATEC’s protest. At the end of May, GE was awaiting word to resume ITEP R&D work. “We’re ready to execute on this contract,” said Mathis.
But even had the GAO not decided in GE Aviation’s favor regarding the ITEP EMD contract, the company still would have found military-engine R&D work for all of the 1,000-plus engineers it is transferring from its civil-engines business, according to Mathis. “We actually have more demand for engineers than we have engineers,” he said, noting that GE is also using self-employed engineers as contractors to meet its military R&D requirements. “So we weren’t anticipating any big layoffs” of engineers had the GAO ruled in ATEC’s favor. As the transfer of engineers proceeds, “we will manage where they go depending on how successful we are on individual programs,” said Mathis.
Ongoing Design Efforts
One program that continues to require engineering resources is the continuing technology maturation of GE’s XA100 engine under Phase 1 of its AETP contract, the XA100 having passed the U.S. Air Force Laboratory’s detailed design review in late 2018. AETP Phase 1, development of the potential F135 replacement engine, ends in 2021. GE is now assembling an unspecified number of XA100s for various testing requirements. The U.S. Air Force Laboratory had originally asked GE to build three XA100s for testing but the contract requirements remain flexible, according to Mathis. As AETP Phase 1 continues, GE also is working in parallel on Phase 2, which will continue beyond 2021 to mature technologies for three-airstream engines that could potentially power future U.S. air-superiority aircraft.
Beyond ITEP and AETP, GE’s military-engines business has a great deal more design and development work going on. One important program is the effort to make the GE T408-powered Sikorsky CH-53K heavy-lift helicopter fully operational with the U.S. Marine Corps. The Marine Corps has highlighted the T408 as a model program, the engine having met all of the Corps’ requirements for schedule, cost, and engine performance, according to Mathis. “We’ve flown over 7,000 hours of testing without any engine-cause removals,” he said. GE continues to develop the T408, using technological and design input derived from the ITEP and sole-source Future Affordable Turbine Engine R&D contract awards it has won from the U.S. Army.
Another important engineering design effort is the integration of GE’s proven F404 fighter engine into the Boeing T-X, which the U.S. Air Force has selected to replace the elderly North American T-38 Talon as its advanced jet trainer. The U.S. Air Force has awarded the Boeing-Saab partnership, which developed the F404-powered T-X, a production contract for 351 aircraft. GE has considerable hopes that large numbers of T-Xs may also be sold to other U.S. military branches and to air forces internationally as an advanced jet trainer or a light-attack aircraft, or both.
Also of considerable current design and development interest to GE is a potential engine-production contract for the 144 GE F110-powered Boeing F-15EX air-superiority fighters the U.S. Air Force is considering buying by 2024. In its fiscal year 2020 budget the U.S. Air Force requested $1.1 billion for an initial batch of eight F-15EXs, surprising many observers but enthralling GE Aviation with the potential prospect of selling hundreds more examples of its long-serving and high-selling F110 engine.
Yet another juicy engine-sales possibility for GE Aviation—though it is in competition for the contract with Pratt & Whitney—is the U.S. Air Force’s forthcoming requirement for 650 20,000-pound-thrust engines to replace the vintage Pratt & Whitney TF-33 low-bypass turbofans that power the U.S. Air Force’s remaining fleet of Boeing B-52H strategic bombers, a fleet today numbering just under 80 aircraft. The U.S. Air Force plans to upgrade 76 of the eight-engine bombers in the 2020s and keep them in service until about 2050, by which time every B-52 remaining in service would be nearing 90 years old.
The U.S. Department of Defense’s Fiscal Year 2019 budget provided a total of $65 million for Boeing and the two engine-makers to study integration of their respective engine offerings with the B-52’s wing, then to produce an initial response to the Air Force’s B-52 re-engining request for proposals (RFP) by this summer and a final response to the RFP by the end of the year. GE Aviation is preparing two offers, involving two widely different engine choices.
One is the CF34-10, the engine that powers the Bombardier CRJ900 and CRJ1000 and the Embraer 190 and 195. As an engine designed for commercial service, the CF34-10 is highly reliable in operation and—each engine being operated for 3,000 flight-hours or more per year—has accumulated many millions of hours and cycles of flight time. GE’s other B-52 re-engining offering is the new Passport, an engine designed to power large business jets. As such, the Passport is not designed to accumulate as many flight-hours as the CF34-10, but it incorporates more advanced technologies than does its stablemate and it is both highly fuel-efficient and designed for easy maintenance.
In terms of durability, reliability, and maintainability, either GE offering for the B-52 contract should be suitable if chosen, because GE’s understanding is that the U.S. Air Force expects each re-engined aircraft to fly only about 250 hours annually. “Our estimate is that if you were to put either the Passport or the CF34-10 on the B-52, we wouldn’t expect [any engine to have to undergo] any scheduled overhauls between the 2020s and retirement of the aircraft in the 2050s,” said Mathis.
Other less publicized military-engine development opportunities exist for GE Aviation. These include the work of its K5 unit in “the classified black world we can’t talk about,” said Mathis. “There are a lot of great opportunities, and our teams back there are doing us well.” Also low-profile, but a sizable continuing source of R&D and sales for GE, “is the competitiveness of our F110 and F414 [engines] on F-15s, F-16s, and F-18s internationally,” he said.