After five years of being told by two different administrations that its extra engine for the F-35 fighter is a waste of money, General Electric still can’t take “no” for an answer. Its latest ploy to secure multi-billion-dollar contracts from the Pentagon for the superfluous propulsion system is to claim it will keep the system on life support for two years with its own money. All it needs the government to do is let it use some equipment, personnel and facilities that taxpayers paid for, and GE will pick up the rest of the tab. Am I just cynical, or does it sound like the government will have to keep spending money under GE’s new plan?
We’ve been down this road before with the “alternate engine” — a program that might more appropriately be called the “orphan engine” since the Pentagon doesn’t want it and Congress has cut off funding. GE’s previous themes included such gems as “Give us another billion dollars so we can save you money!” and “We need real competition, so please guarantee us business for the next 20 years no matter how poorly we perform!” Thus, it’s no surprise that the new idea for the company to “self-fund” the unwanted engine will require the government to spend more money.
What GE has conveniently downplayed in public discussions of its proposal is that the government owns the engines, it owns the intellectual property associated with the engines, it owns tooling and test equipment, and all sorts of other items needed to keep the program going. Even if the feds were willing to give GE those things gratis, they probably aren’t going to let the company just borrow the engines for a couple of years. Some hapless government employees will have to monitor their transfer and maintenance to assure government money isn’t being, uh, wasted. Which is one of many reasons why the Pentagon isn’t likely to take the self-funding proposal seriously, even though the House Armed Services Committee has approved the idea in principle.
But let’s be honest, the real issue here is whether Congress is capable of killing any program, no matter how wasteful it is, if a handful of influential legislators think their districts deserve more subsidies. In other words, the issue isn’t millions of dollars that GE might need from taxpayers over the next two years, but the many billions of dollars in contracts it still hopes to secure by building a second engine for a single-engine fighter. No other item on that plane is being bought from multiple sources, but GE and its backers want you to know that national security is at risk if we don’t buy two different engines from two different makers. And they’re so committed to protecting America that they’re willing to take only millions from taxpayers while they “self-fund” their engine to keep open the option for squandering billions more later. No wonder their corporate slogan is “imagination at work.”
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