“Extra” is essential in the case of F-35 jet engines

Kerri Houston Tolozcko Senior Fellow, Frontiers of Freedom
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“… distractions and mischaracterizations cloak substantive arguments surrounding the issue as the second engine is not “extra;” it’s an alternate, and the enormous difference between the two words means everything.”

Common sense tells us that the result of any competitive bidding process is a better product, lower price and often an alternative source in case the wheels fall off the primary widget.

Last Tuesday the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee voted to continue funding what has become a controversial second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to be made by General Electric and Rolls Royce to reinforce a primary Pratt & Whitney engine.  The decision to continue this multi-vendor competition now rests with the Senate.

But despite strong recommendations for the second engine from the House and the independent Government Accounting Office, President Obama believes one-stop engine shopping for a single-engine fighter plane is a prudent plan.

The story has been covered extensively in the media – from the wrong perspective.  Instead of a debate about multiple-source purchasing in procuring critical components for warfighters, stories have focused on the juicy bits  – competing lobbyists, “pay to play” accusations and advertising budgets.

Public relations efforts by both vendors have been hard-hitting, and considering the circumstances – expected, as both are ultimately accountable to shareholders and employees.  But are the messages accurate?

A recent story covered a Pratt & Whitney poll included questions so slanted that using it as a legitimate public relations tool bordered on ridiculous.  For example, respondents overwhelmingly said “no” when asked if the Pentagon should spend money on an “extra” engine.  Phrased like that, who wouldn’t?

The pollster concluded that supporting competition for an alternative engine would jeopardize electability in the fall.  The JSF engine dispute that few people outside Washington ever heard of replaces jobs as the key driver of voter choice in November.  Really?

These distractions and mischaracterizations cloak substantive arguments surrounding the issue as the second engine is not “extra;” it’s an alternate, and the enormous difference between the two words means everything.

The March 2010 GAO report on the JSF made it clear that both our security and our taxpayers would benefit from engine competition.  It noted that if administered properly — by a Pentagon that has embraced a Total Quality Management and Six Sigma approach to contract management — a competitive engine program would save money.

Millions have already been spent on the GE/RR engine and it will cost an estimated $63B to complete the JSF.  Continued competition for two engines will cost about $5B (only 8% of the remaining budget.)  A savings of as little as 10% from the competitive process could negate the additional expenditure in as few as four years.

The GAO also predicted that competition would provide non-budgetary benefits such as accelerated timetables and increased innovation and contractor responsiveness.

Because the JSF is a one-engine plane there is no room for error.  Designed to allow either engine to “plug in” easily, in the unfortunate event of a major flaw with one design, an alternative would be available immediately instead of having to ground an entire fleet that will be the mainstay of our air defense.

Both engines are designed under military specifications with the same mission critical capability and repair cost radios.

With continued threats to American security from despots and terrorists around the globe, President Obama has been aggressively cutting military spending and classifies the alternative engine an “unnecessary expense.”

With cuts to a myriad of programs such as search and rescue helicopters and advanced transformational communications satellites, one wonders if this Administration considers our entire military infrastructure an “unnecessary expense.”

Historically, the Defense Department’s budgetary focus has been acting as good stewards of the money Congress and the White House send it rather than playing vendor referee.  Secretary Gates obeys his boss, as does the chain of command at DoD.  Air Force leaders don’t need to take their eyes off operational readiness to play political ping-pong in an engine purchasing dustup.

Last July, the Associated Press analyzed 570 Pentagon contracts for military base repairs and concluded that millions of dollars were saved through competitive bids.  At the same time, President Obama promised taxpayers “by ending no bid contracts … we can save the American people up to $40B every year.”

I don’t know a single soul at P&W, GE or Rolls Royce.  But my son is in USAF ROTC and his survivability could one day depend on the reliability of an F-35 engine.  I care – and the American people would too if provided with the facts and risks.

Competition always works, and nowhere is it more critical than when billions of dollars and military readiness are at stake.  Its past time for a serious public conversation on the importance of having two engines available for the one-engine fighter that will comprise 90% of our air security by 2035.

In early July, President Obama released his contracting reform initiative, claiming it will “change the way Washington does business” by “increasing competition and reducing high-risk contract practices.”

Sounds great.  The Joint Strike Fighter would be a good start.

Kerri Toloczko is Senior Vice President for Policy at the Institute for Liberty.