Unnecessary extra fighter engine: $3 billion defense spending waste

Congress will soon make a decision on whether to continue funding a defense program that our last two presidents have said they don’t want, that our last two Secretaries of Defense have said is wasteful and unnecessary; that the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps oppose, and that the Senate voted 59-38 to end in 2009. 

The program is for an “alternate engine” for the Joint Strike fighter. Since 2005, there has been bipartisan administration and Pentagon support to cancel funding for the extra engine, yet Congress has earmarked more than $1 billion for it. According to the latest Pentagon analysis, another $2.9 billion is needed just to complete development of the extra engine. The cost of two separate production lines, supply chains, management teams, and workforces will come later.

Secretary Gates and President Obama have said the money could be better spent on things our war fighters really need. Last year, President Obama called the extra engine an example of “unnecessary defense programs that do nothing to keep us safe, but rather prevent us from spending money on what does keep us safe.” Gates recently said simply, “a dollar that they make us spend on stuff we don’t need is a dollar we can’t spend on what we do need.”

So why are some in Congress insisting on spending billions for an extra engine? As President Reagan used to say, a wasteful federal program is “the closest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.” Thus, this extra engine lives on until Congress finds the political will to stop funding it.
Pratt & Whitney won the private-sector competition in 2001, when Lockheed-Martin included the F135 engine as part of its X-35B bid to produce the Joint Strike Fighter. Pratt & Whitney won again when the

Pentagon awarded Lockheed-Martin the contract for the F-35. This is standard practice. The competition should have ended after the military made its choice. All competitors had their choice of engines. The F135 engine was selected because it is a derivative of the safest fighter engine ever produced the Pratt & Whitney F-119 engine that has powered the F-22 for nearly 300,000 flight hours.

For the past five years, the services buying the F-35 have rejected the need for an alternate engine. However, the team producing the extra engine has been trying to achieve through legislation what it failed to achieve in competition. The real losers of this contrived competition are American taxpayers and our servicemen and women, who lose out when the Pentagon is forced to spend $3 billion for two different engines.

As senior service officials have estimated, the funds for the second engine could pay for as many as 50 to 80 more Joint Strike Fighters.

Special interests contend that building two engines fosters competition that will keep costs down. But, this is not a head-to-head competition between two engines of the same maturity. It is a sham competition that would guarantee a second engine manufacturer some of the business at much higher program cost. There is no compelling evidence that having two engines will create enough savings to outweigh the additional costs. No military fighter jet been procured with two engine sources for the last three decades. It is not necessary, and it costs more in the long run.

Meanwhile, the F135 engine has successfully completed more than 17,500 hours of testing, received its government certification, is in production, and is successfully powering the F-35 flight test program. There is no danger of a catastrophic failure, another reason given for keeping a second engine source. Both the F-18 and F-22 have single engine sources and enviable safety records. Significant advancements in engine design, testing, and production have enabled us to manage the risks associated with single engine systems without having to ground an entire fleet.

Given the current state of our economy and the size of our deficit, politicians will have a difficult time explaining to voters why they have spent billions of their tax dollars to fund an extra engine the military has said it doesn’t need or want. Congress should end this earmark, once and for all.
General Loh is a former Air Force Vice Chief of Staff and Commander of Air Combat Command. He consults for several defense companies including Pratt & Whitney.