The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is being developed to replace most of the Cold War tactical aircraft operated by three U.S. military services and nine allies. The success of the program depends on holding down costs. However, House backers of an unneeded “alternate engine” for the single-engine F-35 are threatening to withhold money for the fighter unless their pet project is funded — a move that potentially drives up the cost of each plane in the program. In effect, the legislators are trying to hold hostage the modernization of military air fleets to assure their home states get jobs at the expense of taxpayers and our warfighters.
Supporters of the alternate engine say they want the military to buy two engines for the F-35 so there can be competitions to discipline price and performance. However, military and civilian officials in the Pentagon have been telling Congress since 2007 that the plan is likely to backfire, because it would force the government to pay for two production lines, two supply networks, and two workforces while reducing the volume of work given to either team. Most of the outside analysts who have looked at the alternate engine agree, finding that billions of dollars in up-front costs might never be recovered, and that fielding two different engines for the same plane would complicate wartime logistics.
Defense secretary Robert Gates correctly dismisses the alternate engine as a waste of money, pointing out that the engine selected years ago to power the F-35 is performing well in tests, while its rival is not performing well at all and may not be able to meet military needs. Because the alternate engine will not reach the field until long after the engine currently being used in all F-35s, some of the potential benefits from competition have already been lost. Beyond that, the Pentagon’s deputy comptroller for programs and budgets told Congress on May 19 that many users around the world would resist buying competing engines due to the cost and complexity involved in supporting two different systems.
The latter argument seems to be borne out by experience. No new military aircraft program in recent times has entered service using competing engines, and no other subsystem on the F-35 — such as the radar or the landing gear — is being competed across the lifetime of the program, because it’s just too expensive to do things that way. The normal approach is to hold a series of competitions at the beginning of the program, pick the best candidate for each subsystem, and then use the winning items in the production plane. The primary engine for the F-35 was chosen that way, but General Electric and its allies in Congress didn’t like the outcome so they have been agitating ever since for the subsidies they need to stay engaged.
For Secretary Gates, the alternate engine controversy has become a test of whether the Pentagon can stop wasting tax dollars. He has recommended to President Obama that the entire defense authorization bill should be vetoed if it contains money for the alternate engine, because the military needs to spend the billions of dollars involved on more urgent items. Some will argue the budget deficit is so huge that one more superfluous program won’t make a big difference, but that kind of reasoning partially explains why we have a big deficit in the first place. If Congress can’t bring itself to cancel military programs even when the Pentagon says they are unneeded, how will we ever get out of the fiscal mess we are in?
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