Safeguarding America's technology brain trust

The battle revolves around a Pentagon that wants to monopolize production of a single engine — the Pratt & Whitney F135 — and a Congress in which many advocate a second engine option, the F136, produced by General Electric and Rolls Royce.

The drama is unfolding in the context of a veto threat of a critical wartime defense budget if it includes any funding for the F136 engine. The single-engine narrative is clear if not misguided: Putting money into a second engine is inefficient and wasteful. Ask many Pentagon program managers, accountants, statisticiansand F135 advocates, and they’ll tell you we have a done deal.

But such a deal depends on top-down, authoritarian manipulation of a sole source monopoly supplier of America’s future high tech engine. Missing from their calculus is the power of innovation that springs from competition. America’s superior weapon systems don’t come from tidy retrospective constructs that respond to current threats. They come from the unfettered and free thinking design and development brain trust that doesn’t look back, but looks forward to preempt future threats and redefine the battlespace to our advantage.

Having been intimately involved with fighter development, I witnessed both the good and not-so-good of this process. The fundamentals of American fighter superiority demand rapid cycles of innovation and change, both of which are best fostered through the dynamics of competition. Unfortunately today’s Pentagon sees cycles of innovation as risky and inefficient. They, along with like minded actuaries, don’t "get it" because you cannot empirically value the art of innovation.

One of the best case studies of the true value of innovation involves the engines first fielded on the F-16 fighter. What became known as the Great Engine War offers a textbook example of how two competing providers unleashed design teams, technologists, engineers and war fighters to make a personal difference in engine development. It was a messy process, but it ultimately gave us the world’s best jet propulsion systems and the world’s two best design houses.

The sole source monopolization of the JSF engine will result in the loss of uniquely talented engineers, designers and technicians that may never return. A single engine might offer marginal near-term savings but the loss of the technogeeks and aviation artisans who accept the risks of cutting-edge innovation is incalculable. Contrary to the view of alternate engine opponents, these men and women are not beans to be counted or a “wasteful” investment. They represent the intangibility of hope and dreams of change that compel America’s youth to study hard and go on to produce the next engineering wonder.

Americans value the innovative spirit and they expect Congress to understand that our future military success depends not only on budgets but also brains. That’s the critical importance of having both engines for the JSF.

Robert Newton is a retired Air Force fighter pilot, test pilot and program manager. 

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