ORLANDO, Fla. – The Air Force is on track to release a request for proposals to procure new engines for the service’s oldest bomber aircraft within the next month, the service’s top acquisition civilian said Feb. 28.

Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper told reporters the service plans to use other transaction authorities to buy new engines for the venerable B-52 strategic bomber fleet.

A U.S. Air Force B-52H Stratofortress bomber takes off from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, on a higher headquarters-directed Continuous Bomber Presence mission in support of exercise Pitch Black 18 in Australia’s Northern Territory Aug. 6, 2018 (HST). Bilateral training between the United States and allies like Australia increases interoperability and strengthens our long-standing military-to-military partnerships. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Christopher Quail)

“Our goal is to get industry working quickly,” he said at a Thursday media roundtable at the Air Force Association’s annual Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida.

Rolls-Royce, Pratt & Whitney [UTX] and GE Aviation [GE] plan to compete for the potentially lucrative contract to install eight new engines on each B-52, for a total of over 600 engines for all 76 aircraft in the fleet. Boeing [BA], the aircraft manufacturer, is serving as sole-source integrator for a wide array of B-52 modernization efforts in the works, to include a new radar, internal weapons bay upgrades, communications network and various electronics upgrades.

The “first real deliverable” for the re-engine program will be a virtual power pylon model that will help the service and industry team explore integration issues, Roper said. “We first have to know that the engine can be integrated, and easily, because there’s no reason to go further if it can’t,” he said.

The program will next move into a digital twin flyoff competition between the proposed engine replacements, the way that commercial airlines pick their engines, and evaluate fuel efficiency rates at different altitudes, Roper said.

“One could imagine that if all of the engines are roughly the same in terms of fuel efficiency, and if they are roughly the same in terms of integration, that it just becomes a fairly simple competition to get the best price,” he noted.

Roper said the Air Force stands to learn much from the Air Force’s first digital twin competition for future sustainment efforts.

Pratt & Whitney plans to pitch its PW815 engine to replace the current P&W-made TF33-PW-103s on board the aircraft. Rolls-Royce announced Feb. 25 it will submit its F130 engine for the competition (Defense Daily, Feb. 25). GE Aviation plans to submit a proposal and has two engines in mind — the CF34-10 engine and the Passport — and will decide which system to pitch once the RFP is released, a company spokesperson said March 1. A contract award is expected in fiscal year 2020.

Aircraft availability needs must be addressed as the entire B-52 modernization effort moves forward, Roper said. Five of the modernization efforts – the re-engine, the new radar, the combat network communications technology, or CONECT, program, and two hypersonic weapons programs – are acquisition category-1 (ACAT-1)-sized programs, he noted.

Those are “five huge programs, all of which are going to be looking for access to the plane, access for testing, so we’re going to have to manage that like one mega program,” he added.

Balancing the aircraft’s availability requirements with testing needs for each modernization program is going to be “a huge challenge,” Scot Oathout, Boeing director of bomber programs, said in a Thursday interview at the AFA conference.

“Even if we do some digital prototyping, that’s all going to strain that aircraft availability on assets,” he noted. Boeing is currently working with the Air Force on a plan to “minimize the number of aircraft we have got to put down for tests,” he added.