F-35 competition vital to reliability of aircraft fleet

It’s no secret the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is in trouble. The projected acquisition cost is well more than $300 billion — a 55 percent increase over the original estimate. It’s also no secret the JSF is a must have for our military. The aging fleet of legacy fighter aircraft must be replaced and delays in development of the JSF are already causing gaps in requirements, causing many in the Pentagon to lie awake at night. The Marine Corps who, unlike the Navy, passed over opportunities to invest in updated F-18s, is more desperate for delivery of the aircraft than the other services.

Unfortunately, cost and schedule problems in DOD procurement are not unusual.  The response from Pentagon managers in this case is not unusual either. When the program got into trouble a few years ago, the first thing they threw overboard was the competitive engine. It was an easy choice to make — development of the aircraft was not tied to the competitive engine and, with the program’s management reserve exhausted, the cash appropriated for the engine was an attractive target.

But here’s the rub. Tossing the competitive engine is the equivalent of throwing away an oar when you’re in a life raft. Pentagon officials far and wide will say competition is a guiding principle for defense procurement and when the JSF program began the plan was to have two engines. Why? The Pentagon’s own documents say it best, “this competitive environment will ensure long-term industrial base support with two production lines and will keep JSF engine costs down and reliability up.” Instead of taking the long view and identifying the root cause of problems with the program, JSF managers panicked and eliminated the one thing they had going for them — competition.

Unsurprisingly, actions taken by the Pentagon have not solved the program’s development challenges. Earlier this year, the program was declared in breach of the infamous Nunn-McCurdy cost thresholds. To make matters worse, the primary engine, the F135, has experienced a more than 50 percent increase over its original baseline as documented in a 2010 Government Accountability Office study. The path ahead for both the JSF program and the F135 engine is uncertain. But, one thing is certain. It will be a lot tougher for Pentagon officials to manage if Congress does not prevent them from throwing away the competitive engine.

The hype about “wasteful spending” and the opposition to competition for the F-35 engine are artificial. First, the Pentagon’s own business case analysis shows that in the worst-case, this is a break-even investment. Second, competition is the law. It has been for decades. Just one year ago, this very same Congress unanimously passed the Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009 (WSARA), which reaffirmed that competition was required not only at the start of a program, but at the prime and subcontract level, throughout a program’s lifecycle.  What’s more, Congress has provided funding for the competitive engine in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010. Not only did every single member who co-sponsored the amendment to strip the funding for the competitive engine vote for WSARA, but the amendment’s primary author was actually a co-sponsor of the bill! For that matter, 31 of the 33 co-sponsors voted to fund the alternate engine every year since 2007 (when they cast a vote). What’s changed?  Nothing — except the increased price tag of the F135 engine and the JSF program.

Many who oppose the competitive engine claim that this is just another pork-barrel project created to line the pockets of a contractor who lost an earlier competition. This is not the case. There never was a competition for the JSF engine. Pentagon officials are in the Congressional record clearly stating “Pratt & Whitney [F135] was awarded a non-competitive SDD [System Development and Demonstration] contract for the F135 propulsion system.” In reality, most in Congress understand this is national security imperative and the up-front investment is well worth the long-term benefit. The JSF program is projected to field 2,457 aircraft for the U.S., and the Institute for Defense Analyses estimates the JSF will constitute 95 percent of our nation’s fighter fleet by 2035. Never before has this nation been so reliant on one fighter aircraft, produced by a single manufacturer, with a single engine. Which sounds more like pork-barrel spending – demanding competition in the single largest program in the history of the Department of Defense, or entering into a sole-source, non-competitive engine contract for over $110 billion?

The bottom line is this — eliminating the competitive engine will have repercussions for years to come. As I spoke to many of my colleagues on the House floor during consideration of the Pingree amendment to strip alternate engine funding, I emphasized that this is a 30-year vote. The reliability of our fighter aircraft fleet depends on it.

Rep. Shuster is a member of the House Armed Services Committee.