It is now four years since the defense department decided it didn’t need to develop two different engines for its single-engine F-35 fighter, and stopped requesting money for the second engine. Since that time, the United Technologies engine that it decided to stick with has accumulated 18,000 test hours and has achieved virtually all of its performance, reliability and affordability goals. That isn’t surprising, because it is based on the highly successful engine that United Technologies developed for the earlier F-22 fighter, and it was selected by both of the companies that competed to build the less expensive F-35.
But the engine the companies didn’t select, and the Pentagon didn’t fund, hasn’t gone away. A coalition of legislators with home-state interest in perpetuating the General Electric “alternate engine” have kept the money flowing, at the expense of both warfighters and taxpayers who had better uses for the funds. Backers of the second engine say the Pentagon needs to split the engine program between two different designs built on two different production lines so that it can hold money-saving competitions.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is determined to kill the second engine, which he sees as emblematic of military waste. Gates is right: there is not a single credible study demonstrating that money will be saved by purchasing two different engines for the same single-engine fighter. No other item on the F-35 is being competed, and no other military plane developed over the last quarter century has been equipped with competing engines. The simple truth is that it costs more money to sustain two production lines, two supply chains, and two maintenance systems than it does to sustain one of each. And the notion that a program can be made safer or more reliable by doubling its complexity seems quite improbable.
In response to the steadfast opposition of two administrations to its unneeded engine, General Electric has issued a steady stream of misleading statements about the progress and performance of its product. It has exaggerated the positive comments that the Government Accountability Office made about the value of a second engine, while ignoring the skepticism expressed in five other government reports of equal stature. And it has sought to discredit independent analysts who sided with Secretary Gates, rather than responding to their criticisms.
But the facts of this case speak for themselves. General Electric wants an industrial subsidy from U.S. taxpayers to stay in the fighter-engine business, and the only legislators who are backing its bid are those whose states would get some of the resulting funds. In order to obtain those funds — billions of additional dollars before the GE engine is ready for competition — they will have to take money from more pressing military needs, and from states where the F-35’s primary engine is to be built. Backers of the GE engine have sought to drape this money-grab in the mantle of competition, but Secretary Gates sees that for what it is. His efforts to kill the alternate engine deserve the support of every legislator who favors fiscal responsibility and good government.
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