ITEP Engines Need Development to Reduce Risk to the Warfighter

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The U.S. Army is pursuing the most massive modernization campaign in its post-World War II history. It is rushing and with full force to begin upgrading or replacing every platform in its inventory. The goal is to re-establish overmatch versus prospective great power competitors by the 2030s. This requires making significant decisions to select new or improved platforms and systems in the near-term. There are always risks associated with the development of new capabilities. The Army needs to take all appropriate steps to reduce these risks. One way of doing this is by pursuing competitive prototyping for major programs.

The Army’s modernization effort is primarily focused in six areas: long-range precision fires, next-generation combat vehicles, future vertical lift, networks, air and missile defense and soldier lethality. The Army is looking for a significant improvement in capabilities in each of these areas, as much as ten times what is provided by existing platforms, weapons and systems. It is hoping to acquire robotic vehicles, tiltrotor and pusher propeller helicopters, extremely long-range cannons, and rockets and lasers for air and missile defenses.  

The Army's leadership knows that its Service has what can best be described as a "checkered" history when it comes to recent modernization efforts. As a consequence, while moving ahead as fast as possible, those in charge of this program are taking deliberate steps to reduce risk. A critical way of reducing risk is by not selecting a winner too early in development and instead requiring competitors to design and produce prototypes. Prototyping requires companies to actually bend metal, provide vehicles, weapons or systems that the Army can test. According to the Government Accountability Office, prototyping can reduce technical risk, investigate integration challenges, validate designs, mature technologies, and refine performance requirements.

The Army is using newly established acquisition authorities to require companies competing in the six modernization areas to build prototypes or representative samples of the platforms or systems they hope to produce. The program to develop a Bradley Replacement, the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle, required companies submitting proposals to include a representative sample of their candidate platform. The Army recently awarded five companies with contracts to design, develop and test prototypes of a Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA). A similar approach – design, develop and test prototypes – is being used to develop new air and missile defenses and long-range missile systems.

One of the Army’s most important modernization efforts isn’t a new tank or missile. It is the Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP) to design and develop a new engine intended primarily to replace the existing power plant in the 1,300 Black Hawk and 600 Apache helicopters in the Army’s fleet. The new engine may also power the FARA.

Earlier this year, the Army awarded a contract for engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) to General Electric, one of the two competitors in the ITEP program, for its T901 engine. Even though the ITEP program has been underway since 2006, the award was based on a preliminary design review. This is unusual. The past two efforts to develop new helicopter engines, the T700 and T800, carried the competition the through most of EMD, at least to preliminary flight rating tests (PFRT), to have multiple engine prototypes for testing.  This approach was central to the success of the T700, which has powered the Blackhawk and Apache for nearly forty years. It doesn’t make sense to abandon this approach now.

Nor does it make sense to award five competing companies contracts to develop prototypes of the FARA but decide on the engine that may power whichever design wins without a prototype.  The engine is arguably the most important system in any helicopter.

The decision to select a winner in the ITEP competition so early in development is even more surprising given the Army’s emphasis on competitive prototyping in its modernization programs. The new engine could power existing Army helicopters and the new FARA for half a century. This means the Army is betting the future of its aviation component on an as-yet unverified promise by the winning company that its engine will perform as advertised. That is quite a risk.

If there are problems with the winning engine as it goes through EMD, this could require design changes. Such changes usually cause schedule delays and increase costs. A significant delay in fielding the new engine means that the Army would have to keep flying Black Hawks and Apaches with the old, underpowered engines.

Also, the EMD contract is cost-plus, meaning the Army will have to fund any cost overruns due to design changes or producibility issues. Moreover, if the cost estimates for the production version of what is still a paper-only design is off by even a few dollars per unit engine, the compounded costs to the Army could be hundreds of millions over the life of the program. For a given amount of resources, this could result in fewer engines being acquired, leading to Army aviation modernization taking longer than planned. If the needed funds come from other Army modernization programs, this creates a cascading series of risks.  

But the risk is not merely technical, programmatic, or cost-related. The risk is also to the warfighter.  The lack of a modern, powerful engine means that helicopters may operate without adequate payloads, with less time on station or without the ability to respond in-flight to changing circumstances.  The consequences of a risky ITEP decision could be measured in soldiers’ lives.

What can the Army do at this point? The simplest answer is to fund the second ITEP competitor, the Advanced Turbine Engine Company, at least through that portion of EMD that will produce PFRT engines. At that point, both designs will have significantly reduced technical risk, and the Army will have additional data that will either validate its choice or suggest needed changes. We are talking about a relatively small amount of money, $300-400 million, to reduce the risk to the warfighter to a more acceptable level.

Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.

Pratt & Whitney, a partner in the Advanced Turbine Engine Company, is a donor to the Lexington Institute.

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