An F-35A Lightning II with the F-35 demonstration team takes a training flight near Hill Air Force Base, Utah, Jan. 7, 2020.

An F-35A Lightning II with the F-35 demonstration team takes a training flight near Hill Air Force Base, Utah, Jan. 7, 2020. U.S. Air Force / Staff Sgt. Jarrod Vickers

Potential competition for F-35 cooling system heats up between Honeywell and Raytheon

Company officials spar over access to engine information.

The F-35 joint program office hasn't even announced a competition to improve the cooling system for the fighter jet—but one prospective bidder is already worried the contest might not be fair, while another says it’s taken steps to ensure a level playing field.

The potential competition is over a critical system that must be upgraded along with the engine to keep the jet flying into the future. Honeywell makes the current cooling system and expects to bid on the contract to upgrade it. A competing bid is expected from Raytheon, which would offer a new system, dubbed EPACS, to be built by its subsidiary Collins Aerospace.

But Honeywell executives say they would be at an unfair disadvantage because the F-35 engine is being upgraded by Pratt & Whitney, another Raytheon subsidiary. This Engine Core Upgrade, or ECU, contract gives Raytheon access to information about the engine that other companies might not have, said Matt Milas, president of Honeywell Aerospace’s defense and space business. 

“I do think that it's a little bit dubious that there's Raytheon-Pratt & Whitney taking that government rights data from the ECU upgrade and keeping it to themselves,” Milas told Defense One

However, Jen Latka, vice president of Pratt’s F135 program, said the company has not withheld from Honeywell any information on the engine upgrade.

“We have not received any requests for information on ECU through official channels, and that makes sense because the JPO asked us mid-June 2023 not to share any information on ECU with potential PTMS [Power and Thermal Management System] providers because it could turn into a competitive effort,” Latka said. “Based on this request, Pratt immediately developed and implemented a mitigation plan that includes firewalls between our Pratt ECU and Collins EPACS teams to avoid conflicts of interest.”

Milas hopes Honeywell will be included in the engine upgrade’s preliminary design review later this year so the company can get a better picture of what the cooling requirements will be, he said, but that decision will be left to the JPO and Pratt.

“I think that Pratt is already making sure that Collins is getting all the information that they need, so just to make sure we’ve got a level playing field and the opportunity to look at how we best optimize that at the lowest cost, and I think it’s really important that Honeywell has the opportunity to participate,” Milas said. 

The F-35 currently uses Honeywell’s Power and Thermal Management System to pull air from the engine to cool its radar and other electronic systems. But F-35-builder Lockheed Martin discovered in 2008 that cooling requires much more “bleed air” than anticipated. 

The Air Force said in its 2024 budget rollout that an engine upgrade paired with a PTMS upgrade is the only cost-effective way to get the needed power and cooling capacity for the F-35. 

Asked whether the Pentagon will hold a competition for the cooling system upgrade, Joint Program Office spokesperson Russ Goemaere said, “The F-35 JPO is in the process of finalizing the acquisition strategy on the ECU/PTMS modernization.” 

Milas said that keeping the current Honeywell system would avoid unnecessary costs and risks as the program would need to pivot to a whole new system if it went with Raytheon’s offering. 

“They'd be talking out of both sides of their mouth if they went and said, ‘Hey, stick with the ECU but, oh, by the way, let's try a new EPACS system that's never been used before and throw that on the aircraft.’ It'd be very disingenuous, I think, to approach it from that,” the Honeywell exec said. 

Officials with the F-35 program office have said the ECU and PTMS upgrades will be treated as a single development program, and that they aim to field both by 2030. 

Milas said communication is important so the program can keep engine and airframe requirements in lockstep. 

“I think the direction it’s going [with] the ECU and PTMS—Lockheed, I believe, will be looking to integrate that with the support from the JPO to put those two pieces together and look to optimize it, and honestly it does take that because there's a lot of the rest of the airframe that the PTMS interfaces with and so if you don’t have all of those pieces working together, you’re suboptimizing the whole thing,” Milas said.

Honeywell is currently on contract for a small upgrade to the cooling system to give the jet a “couple” more kilowatts of cooling power. That effort will be finished by the end of the year and deployed next year, he said. 

Milas said the company is also working on a study with Lockheed that would give the system 10 to 17 additional kilowatts, enough to handle a planned set of avionics upgrades called Block 4.

“We've got some very-near-term upgrades that meet the Block 4 types of requirements. Even though those haven't been defined, we think it's going to be in that 10- to 17-kilowatt” range, he said. 

Looking beyond Block 4, Honeywell is working on an upgrade that would deliver two to three times more cooling capability, “especially if we optimized based on the ECU,” Milas said, which would get the jet in the 60- to 80-kilowatt range. 

However, Honeywell is waiting to get the full set of requirements from the program office on how much power and cooling will be needed in the future, he said. 

“We’ve been hearing everything from the Air Force [that they] want to take it all the way up to 80 kilowatts and a lot of the [international] partners are not going to be using most of the Block 4 capabilities, so they're pretty comfortable with the current cooling capability. So I think that's the range that we're hearing is: happy with the current cooling all the way up to need to get to 80 kilowatts. So until that's really defined, that's really going to affect what's really needed in what timeframe,” Milas said.