Despite criticism from President Obama and defense secretary Robert Gates, congressional backers of an extra engine for the F-35 joint strike fighter are preparing to force the program on the Pentagon. The F-35 is a single-engine jet aircraft that will use an evolved version of the Pratt & Whitney powerplant employed on the F-22 fighter. Pratt’s engine repeatedly bested a rival engine proposed by a General Electric team early in the program’s history, but Congress has refused to let the “alternate engine” die. In the latest congressional misuse of the competition concept — we already had a series of competitions that Pratt won — they want to pay for two different engines throughout the history of the F-35 program.
Let’s set aside the fact that the money for the second engine is being taken out of other F-35 accounts in a manner detrimental to the overall effort, and just look at the merits of the alternate-engine concept. There has only been one major effort to buy competing engines for military aircraft — which also pitted a winning Pratt engine against an alternate GE engine — and in that rivalry, the GE product never managed to match the safety record of the Pratt offering. Proponents of repeating that process point to savings, but those materialized only after the government had paid all the costs for designing, developing and producing the rival engine. The government has to spend more money to get to the point where competition generates savings, because it is the only customer for either engine so it has to foot the whole bill for both powerplants.
It is interesting to note that advocates of a new engine competition such as former Pentagon acquisition czar Jacques Gansler are not proposing that any other item on the F-35, like the radar or the landing gear, be competed. Why is that? If competition is such a powerful driver of savings, why do they only want to compete the engines? The answer is that they know it would be an administrative and logistical nightmare to try to keep track of competing suppliers and products for each component across the entire life-cycle of the plane. Well, the same applies to competing engines. Complexity is increased, economies of scale are lost, and in many cases the break-even point for sustaining two suppliers rather than one is never reached. It’s not that competition doesn’t influence supplier behavior, but once it dawns on them that they’re guaranteed 30-40% of the annual buy, it’s more lucrative to get lazy than it is to struggle for an additional 10-20% of the workload.
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