There’s an old saying about Washington that no political issue there is ever fully resolved. You may think it’s done, but then it resurfaces in a new form and the fight goes on. So it appears to be with the alternate engine, the extra propulsion system for U.S. fighter jets that teammates General Electric and Rolls Royce finally seemed to give up on last year after being rebuffed by Congress and two different presidential administrations. The basic problem with the alternate engine was that nobody could prove it would offer any cost or performance advantage over the fighter engine the Pentagon was already buying, so it looked like a giveaway to a couple of well-connected military contractors. Once the Tea Party arrived, it was curtains for the alternate engine.
Or at least, so it seemed. Now, the Air Force has hatched a plan to develop another fighter engine that it says could save billions of dollars in fuel over the next several decades. It’s called the Adaptive Engine Technology Demonstration, and it is supposedly an outgrowth of a science project the Air Force Research Lab has been working on. But here’s the suspicious part: the program balloons from $8 million this year to over $80 million in 2015, at which point the service wants to pick a contractor that can have it ready for installation on the F-35 fighter in 2020 — the same plane that the alternate engine was being developed for. That sure sounds like a new program start, but nobody in the Air Force has mentioned a new start to Congress, and the way it proposes to fund the program with money from three separate sources seems calculated to evade oversight.
Aside from being designed to fly below congressional radar screens, there are plenty of other things wrong with the program. First, it proposes to provide revolutionary fuel savings of 25 percent after a compressed development cycle of only eight years. These sorts of optimistic schedules for cutting-edge programs never work out, and always lead to cost overruns. Second, the business case for the program never closes: the $3-4 billion required to complete development doesn’t include the cost of actually installing the new engine on fighters, and once that is added the program sucks up more money than the value of any fuel savings it would deliver. Third, introducing a new engine would greatly reduce commonality across the F-35 fleet since Navy and Marine users aren’t participating — even though reduced life-cycle costs from commonality were supposed to be a key selling point for the F-35 effort.
But what’s really wrong with the new engine program is what none of its proponents will admit: the whole effort is just another giveaway to General Electric, which the Air Force wants to make sure stays in the fighter engine business. Sure, the formal plan is to compete the new program and award it to the best team, but in the end it will miraculously end up being awarded to GE so that there are still two domestic makers of fighter engines. You didn’t really think the Air Force came up with ideas like this on its own, did you? Let’s see now, the Air Force Research Lab is located in Ohio, and the headquarters of GE’s engine business is in…Ohio! Somebody needs to tell Air Force leaders that GE’s engine business will be doing fine for decades to come even without the new program, and that the government is facing a fiscal crisis. But first they ought to make the Air Force tell Congress what it’s doing with this highly stealthy budget maneuver.
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