Three U.S. military services are developing the F-35 joint strike fighter to replace their aging cold war aircraft and those of allies. The program is performing well in tests, but the key to its success is holding down the cost of the fighters so that all potential users can afford to buy them. If planners are successful in doing that, the program could eventually generate over $100 billion in export orders — which is more than it will cost to develop the plane.
However, the plan for low-cost, stealthy fighters is being undermined by constituencies that want to further their own agendas by attaching themselves to the program. One such constituency is the congressional faction backing an “alternate engine” that would be bought in addition to the primary engine already flying on the plane. Proponents of the alternate engine say that by developing two different engines, the government can have competition that will hold down costs while providing a hedge against a failure in the primary engine.
In reality, the alternate engine program is a subsidy for the aircraft-engine business of General Electric. GE lost a series of competitions in the early stages of the F-35 program to rival Pratt & Whitney, because Pratt was offering a more mature design based on the successful engine built for the F-22 fighter. Unwilling to accept that setback, GE organized congressional support for its alternative — which is currently running about four years behind the development of the primary engine. The Bush and Obama administrations both concluded the alternate engine was a waste of money, but Congress added money to keep it going anyway.
Last month, the Pentagon told Congress that it will cost $2.9 billion beyond what has already been spent to get the GE engine to a point where it can compete with the primary engine. The Pentagon said that savings from competition over the lifetime of the program might cover the cost of developing a second engine, but there would be no net financial benefit. Backers have responded with a series of arguments about why a second engine is still desirable, but their reasoning is flawed and misleading.
First, while it is certain that $2.9 billion will be needed in the near term to develop the second engine, predictions of savings from competition in the distant future are based on assumptions that cannot be proven. Second, there is no need for a hedge against failure of the primary engine because most military planes are developed with only one engine supplier and fleets are almost never grounded due to engine problems (for instance, GE built all the engines for the Navy’s Hornets and Super Hornets). Third, the GE engine is a more likely candidate for failure than the Pratt engine, since it has had multiple testing failures leading to a redesign whereas the Pratt engine is performing very well.
Fourth, the idea that having two engines would bolster reliability is belied by the fact that operations and maintenance would be made much more complicated than necessary. Finally, it is illogical to argue that the industrial base would be strengthened by taking business away from a superior source and giving it to an inferior one. The government would certainly spend more money on the base because it would need to pay for two of everything — production lines, workforces, spare parts inventories, etc. — but the industrial base would end up less efficient as a result.