The Obama Administration has begun “rebalancing” the nation’s defense posture to focus on emerging threats and free up money for domestic initiatives. As was the case under Carter and Clinton, the budget axe looks likely to fall first on weapons programs. Fortunately, there are any number of programs begun during the Bush years that the joint force can do without, such as Space Radar and the DDG-1000 destroyer. Other programs really are needed, like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that will meet the mission requirements of three U.S. services and nine overseas allies. But even on Joint Strike Fighter, there are opportunities to save money. A case in point is the second, or “alternate,” engine for the future fighter.
The F-35 is a single-engine, stealthy fighter being bought in different versions for the Air Force, Navy and Marines. After a series of competitions, the Pratt & Whitney unit of United Technologies was awarded a contract in 1996 to develop the plane’s propulsion system, which is designated the F135 engine. But in a blatant subsidy to the losing General Electric engine team, Congress then directed that a second engine should be developed so that the government could enjoy the benefits of “competition.” It did this despite the fact that the winning engine had already prevailed in half a dozen public and private competitions, and despite the fact that no other part of the plane would be competed once production commenced.
The Pentagon refuses to request funds for the alternate engine, arguing the money would be better spent on other projects. But congressional proponents keep funding the program, saying that having two interchangeable engines competing for annual contracts will drive down costs, bolster the industrial base and provide a hedge against the failure of the primary F135 engine. These arguments are specious — in all likelihood, having two engines will drive up costs, reduce safety, impede gains in performance and weaken the industrial base. The reason why is that as the sole customer, the government will have to pay all the costs for sustaining two design teams, two supply chains and two production sites throughout the life of the program, in return for which it will get a propulsion system in which everything is more complicated.
Consider costs. The government will need to spend over $3 billion beyond what it has already spent to get the alternate engine to the point where it can compete. All of that money could be saved by sticking with a single design. The added costs don’t stop there, because to have annual competitions the government will have to foot the bill to keep two suppliers in the business, and each award will be smaller — less economical — because it will be divided between the two teams. How long will it take before Pratt and GE figure out that since they can’t win all the business, they might as well focus on maximizing profits within their shares? At that point, the government will have lost both the competitive dynamic and economies of scale.
This sounds more likely to weaken the industrial base than strengthen it. Sure there will be more jobs, because the whole system will be less efficient, but that won’t bolster competitiveness in other engine business. Quite the opposite. And as for safety, the record is clear that powerplants debuting on twin-engine planes are safer than those that start out on single-engine planes. The F135 design proved itself by first flying for thousands of hours on the twin-engine F-22 fighter, but the alternate engine will be installed first on the single-engine F-35 fighter, where it will probably have a higher mishap rate. And how are safety and performance bolstered by having two sets of spare parts, divergent maintenance procedures and the like? The added complexity will make mistakes more likely, and performance enhancements harder to implement. Is this really what Congress had in mind when it funded the alternate engine?