While many Americans are focused on the war between Russia and NATO-backed Ukraine, the world also can’t lose sight of how China menaces Taiwan more each month and that North Korea is back to launching ballistic missiles and potentially testing nuclear weapons after a brief respite.

As a former senior staff officer at U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), I recall our allies in Asia agreed it was important to deter and dissuade aggression from both communist regimes otherwise they’ll just increase belligerent behavior.

It’s an extraordinarily dangerous time. We should do all we can to support our allies.

Yet within the Pentagon and Congress today, proposals for air fleet modernization do just the opposite. That’s because there is a call to replace the entire propulsion system of the F-35, the world’s most lethal stealth fighter jet, with an entirely new engine. While upgrades are important, replacing the engines halfway through the jet’s life expectancy of about 30 years isn’t a smart way to go about it.

Rather than creating additional layers of supply and logistics chains for older and newer F-35s, it makes more sense to put those research and development dollars into the coming sixth-generation fighters – not tinkering around with the fifth-generation mid-program.

Let’s remember that 14 nations fly the F-35 and more are lining up to join. Forcing them to maintain their air fleets with multiple propulsion systems, old and new, would translate into more costs and logistical headaches on each one. 

The program has eight partner nations: the U.S., U.K., Italy, Netherlands, Australia, Norway, Denmark and Canada.  Six others — Israel, Japan, South Korea, Poland, Belgium and Singapore — are part of the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. 

Any potential conflict in Asia could rapidly draw in F-35s from Japan, South Korea and Singapore.  Thailand is also looking to buy. We must make it easy for allies to fly and maintain them, not harder. If the U.S. makes it too hard, they could just build their own fighter jets.

The majority of allied partner nations operate the conventional takeoff F-35A, the same variant flown by the U.S. Air Force. Lockheed Martin which builds the F-35 estimates that more than 700 have been delivered to customers worldwide. The U.S. Marines and some allied navies fly the F-35B for vertical, short take-off and landing. And the U.S. Navy flies the F-35C for catapult launch and arrested landings aboard our aircraft carriers.

The main driver of the program is the F135 engine. As with all complex weapons systems, various updates are made as time progresses; just facts of life.

Engine maker Pratt & Whitney has proposed an Enhanced Engine Package (EEP). In their proposals for modernizing the F135 engine in March, they outline plans that will improve thrust and range by more than 10% each. It would give the F-35B a 5% boost in vertical lift and a 50% improvement in thermal management. As proposed, this modernization will be retrofitted, relying on a similar supply chain, infrastructure and sustainment network.

Meanwhile, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has been pushing for the expensive replacement of the F135 engine system with a newly designed Adaptive Engine Transition Program (AETP). Although this program was terminated in April 2011 by Congress due to excessive costs, Kendall is still pressing ahead -- picking up where he left off as the Pentagon’s Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisitions, Technology and Logistics during the Obama administration.       

Already putting the AETP plan in motion, the House of Representatives version of the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act would require the F-35 Joint Program Office at the Pentagon to pursue a strategy to incorporate AETP engines into the F-35 fleet beginning in 2027. This would hurt our allies by jamming them with multiple supply and logistics chains to keep flying their jets.

F-35 Program Executive Officer, Air Force Lt. Gen. Eric T. Fick told reporters on Sept. 15 that the Air Force would have to bear full development and integration costs of putting new AETP engines in its F-35 fleet because the other services can’t fit the power plants in their versions of the fighter. Fick also mentioned it would be unfair for the “Navy, Marine Corps, and [international] partners all footing part of the bill” to integrate an engine into the F-35A that only the Air Force can use.

Incorporating an AETP engine into the F-35 program will divert precious resources and time away from the sixth-generation fighter. Our international allies will be similarly disadvantaged.

While defense modernization is critical for national defense, wasteful and time-consuming programs aren’t the most efficient use of U.S. tax dollars and military effort. 

Colonel Wes Martin is retired. He has served in multiple joint service commands throughout the world