Throughout my military career, I proudly served in joint commands with the other services in Iraq and Central America, U.S. Northern Command in Colorado, and U.S. Central Command in Florida—a great state which I call home today.
The joint concept of “one team, one fight” has been a way of life as Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines have worked harmoniously together over the decades—often in partnership with allies around the globe in combined commands.
Yet beyond our individual training pipelines, we also recognized that U.S. military branches have their own budgets to hash out in Washington. Anybody who has stayed on Air Force bases compared to those living on Army posts or aboard Navy ships can tell you those fiscal decisions significantly impact the quality of life. Living conditions affect recruiting, retention, and health of the services.
Over the past several years, nearly a dozen Sailors assigned to USS George Washington (CVN 73) and USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) committed suicide as those aircraft carriers underwent years-long complex overhauls in the shipyard and Sailors lived in de facto twenty-four seven construction zones.
If such a wide gap in quality of life between the Air Force and Navy isn’t bad enough, I’ve recently learned that a proposed engine replacement for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is only realistic for the Air Force. By extension, it would adversely impact both the Navy and Marines.
It’s a big deal for the country. That’s especially true in Florida, where F-35s fly out of Eglin Air Force Base with the 33rd Fighter Wing and from Jacksonville Airport with the Florida Air National Guard.
As a Florida resident and veteran, it’s troubling to hear that different engines are being designed for the Air Force only—a proposal that runs counter to a “Joint” Strike Fighter in the first place, one that undermines the idea of “one team, one fight.” It would make a “Dis-Joint” Strike Fighter.
When F-35s became operational in the mid-2000s, the idea was for a fifth-generation fighter aircraft with stealth technology that three separate military branches could use. The F-35A was built for conventional runways for the Air Force; F-35B for short take-off and landing by the Marines; and F-35C for catapult launch and arrested landing by the Navy. All three use the F135 engine.
But now, midway through the F-35’s roughly thirty-year lifespan, some in the Air Force, the defense industry, and Congress are pushing hard for an entirely new propulsion system.
Yet that new model, the Adaptive Engine Transition Program (AETP), built to boost thrust and range while improving cooling and fuel efficiency, is only suitable for the Air Force F-35A. Last year the F-35 Program Manager at the Pentagon, Air Force Lt. Gen. Eric Fick, told defense reporters that the AETP is “completely a non-starter” for the F-35B due to the vertical lift requirements and would “require significant modifications” for the F-35C.
Meanwhile, the F135 manufacturer has proposed an Enhanced Engine Package (EEP), an upgrade to the existing system designed for similar improvements at a lesser cost.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told the Potomac Officers Club this summer that there are two main obstacles for AETP going beyond the prototype phase and into production. The first is high cost, and the second is incompatibility with all three variants. He recently told a defense news conference that the billions spent on new engines could mean seventy fewer F-35s are built.
Such a drastic cut would place a much heavier burden on the Navy and Marines to make up for the combat load in case of a major theater war. While competition is typically seen as a good thing, funding this extra engine will, in the end, lead to less funding, innovation, and competition for our sixth-generation fighter, which should be the priority of Congress as we see geopolitical threats continue to rise.
Even though the decision hasn’t been made yet on AETP production, the defense department has still seen mounting costs on research and development. At the Air Force budget briefing at the Pentagon in March 2022, Maj. Gen. David Peccia, III told defense reporters that $286 million was allocated for the Fiscal Year 2023.
One thing is for certain: defense spending isn’t and shouldn’t be a blank check. Taxpayer funding is a finite resource. The services must strike a better balance between the acquisition process and quality of life. We must treasure America’s best resource—our people. Producing new F-35 engines, which only the Air Force can use, doesn’t seem to fit that bill.
John ‘Wolf’ Wagner is a former Army officer of thirty-five years, having served three tours in Iraq. Wolf is a former Principal Deputy Secretary at VA, and served as Commissioner of External Affairs for FDA. He currently resides in Florida as chief of staff for Americano Media.