The biggest weapons program in the Pentagon budget is a single-engine plane called the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. It’s a crucial program, because it will replace aging Cold War jets operated by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps with a stealthy combat plane that can preserve America’s global air superiority. If the Pentagon can hold down its cost, the F-35 could add $100 billion to America’s trade balance over the next 20 years, since lots of countries want to buy it.
But weapons programs need to be funded each year by the Congress, and when they’re really big like the F-35 effort, politicians with self-serving agendas often try to divert some of the money to their friends. Defense secretary Robert Gates went out of his way this week to highlight how a handful of congressmen are doing that with the F-35. They think the single-engine aircraft needs a second engine, an “alternate engine,” built by General Electric in their states. And in order to get that second engine, they are willing to saddle the program with unnecessary cost and complexity for decades to come.
The F-35 already has an engine that works fine. It was developed by the Pratt & Whitney division of United Technologies after a series of competitions that GE lost. But politicians with GE engine facilities in their states weren’t willing to accept the verdict of the marketplace, so they launched a campaign to develop a second engine that could be competed each year with the primary engine. In other words, the government would have to split its purchase of engines, and pay to keep both engine teams in business.
You don’t have to be an aerospace engineer to see what a boondoggle this would be. Since the government is the only customer for the engines, it would have to cover all the costs of sustaining two sets of engineers, two production lines, two sets of suppliers, and two maintenance systems. The economies that might have been achieved by building and maintaining all the engines in one place would be lost. Backers of the second engine say competition would force both engine teams to give the government customer a good deal, but what they don’t say is that neither team could really lose no matter how high its prices were, because you need to keep two teams going to have competitions.
Competition is a fine idea when you have a real marketplace, but in the case of the military — where there’s only one customer and one or two suppliers of any item — it’s often just an excuse for wasting money. That’s why no other part of the F-35 fighter is being competed. It’s also why no other military jet developed in the last quarter century has used more than one engine team. But General Electric and its congressional backers don’t care about that. They care about getting your money. And so they continue to spin fanciful stories about all the jobs that would be created, when in fact those jobs would mainly be stolen from the company (and states) that won the original engine competition.
GE shareholders would benefit, but taxpayers wouldn’t, and neither would warfighters. The higher cost of sustaining two engine teams means that the military would need to pass up something else — probably something it needs more. The “alternate engine” program is nothing more than a subsidy for a company that couldn’t win fairly — you know, like the Troubled Asset Relief Program that bailed out all those endangered banks during the recession. If you liked the TARP, then the alternate engine is your kind of program.
But Republicans can’t have it both ways. If they back programs like the F-35 alternate engine, then they obviously aren’t serious about cutting government waste or reducing the deficit. Spending billions of dollars to create jobs in some states at the expense of others is business as usual in Washington, the kind of behavior the Tea Party supposedly was created to fight. Now that Secretary Gates has reiterated his belief the alternate engine is a waste of money, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives has a decision to make. Is it serious about reducing deficits or isn’t it? Will it stand by its principles, or sell them out like so many other people in Washington have for a few extra bucks, a few extra jobs?
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