F-35’s extra engine should be first to go

With the new Congress pledging to cut unnecessary spending and eliminate wasteful earmarks, the extra engine for the multi-service F-35 joint strike fighter should head the list. Past Congresses have funded the extra engine for four consecutive years despite Bush and Obama White Houses, two secretaries of defense, and the three military services that will operate the fighter rejecting it every year as unneeded and wasteful. President Obama threatens to veto the defense bill this year if Congress inserts funds for it.

The extra engine lives only because special interests in Congress have added nearly two billion dollars to keep it alive. The Pentagon, not known for overestimating defense program costs, says it will take another $2.9 billion to complete development and begin production. And the engine has had a serious failure in testing since then.

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Supporters of the extra engine tout two advantages, competition and jobs.

This is not a head-to-head competition between the current Pratt & Whitney engine and the yet to be developed General Electric engine. It is a procurement directed by Congress to guarantee production for GE. Head-to-head competition at the outset of a program is the norm, even the requirement, for defense programs. There was a competition for the engine and the prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, selected the P&W engine in competition with the GE engine years ago. The government oversaw the selection and agreed with it. 

Now, these two engines are at vastly different stages of maturity. The P&W engine is in production, has flown more than 690 hours and is meeting all its performance and cost goals. It is a direct descendent of the most successful engine development ever, the P&W engine powering the F-22 fighter. The GE engine has not flown, has no such pedigree, and has the toughest part of its development ahead of it. At best, the GE engine will be available for the F-35 in 2017. This is a sham competition, an industrial subsidy and multi-billion dollar earmark for GE.

Producing the extra engine does not provide additional jobs in the private sector. The F-35 program will deliver a fixed number of aircraft regardless of one or two engine choices.  Moreover, GE is teamed with Rolls-Royce, which has been promised many jobs in the UK. This teaming even takes production jobs overseas and adds technical risk to the GE engine. The same number of engines will be built, requiring the same number of jobs.  Supporters of the extra engine just want them in their districts.  

However, there will be more government jobs required in order to support the duplicate maintenance, supply and logistics systems for both engines. These are overhead jobs in government that do not add to combat capability. They are exactly the jobs Secretary Robert Gates is trying to eliminate in the Defense Department in his war on waste. So, the good, productive jobs in industry remain the same. The jobs that add overhead and bloat in the government will increase.

In defense acquisition, the government does not buy extra systems, particularly engines, for good reasons. They never pay for themselves, and they add cost and complexity for logistics and operations. There have never been two different engines for any military aircraft at the start of a program. There is no extra engine for the F-22, V-22, T-6, F-18, C-17, C-130J, Blackhawk or Apache helicopters, all in production now. And most studies have shown no payback for the extra engine for the F-35 even 30 years after its introduction.

Supporters also cite the second engine for the F-16 as justification for an extra engine.  But, that was a one-time anomaly in defense acquisition caused by the lack of responsiveness of the primary engine contractor in the mid-’80s. There is no hard evidence that buying the second engine for the F-16 saved money over time. And multiple studies show an extra engine will cost more in the long run for the F-35.

This is no time to waste more money in the federal government. The mantra of the new Congress is to cut spending. This irresponsible earmark, driven purely by lobbyists and parochial interests in Congress, should cease. If not, then the president’s veto will be most welcome.

Retired Air Force General John Michael Loh is the 
former Air Force vice chief of staff and former 
commander of Air Combat Command. He consults for several defense companies, including Pratt & Whitney.