Mark Zaccaria: An Extra Engine for the Joint Strike Fighter?
With U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, the federal budget deficit estimated at from $1.3 to $1.5 trillion and the economy in a deep downturn, the nation needs to get real value for every dollar that we spend on national defense.
Unfortunately, many members of the House and Senate, including Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI), are pushing for continued funding for a program that the military says it doesn’t need, doesn’t want, and can’t afford: a multibillion dollar “alternate engine” that GE and Rolls Royce are building for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Supporters of the extra engine claim it would promote competition. But that’s like saying that Major League Baseball should keep replaying the 2004 World Series until the Red Sox lose. Nine years ago, during a competitive process, the Department of Defense selected the F135 engine, built by Pratt & Whitney, for the Joint Strike Fighter over the F136 engine, built by GE and Rolls Royce.
Competition concluded. Game over — except in Washington, D.C., where Congress has spent $3 billion for GE and Rolls Royce to keep working on their alternate F136 engine. The program’s price-tag will be $450 million for Fiscal 2011 and a total of $2.9 billion to complete the engine within the next five years.
That’s a lot of money to spend on standby equipment. Not surprisingly, the extra engine’s opponents include the last two presidential administrations, taxpayer watchdogs, and, most tellingly of all, the military itself. They agree that there’s no need for two engines, two production lines, two supply chains, two management teams, and two teams of maintenance personnel.
President Obama and President Bush before him have both tried to kill the extra engine, as have the last two Defense Secretaries, Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates. In a recent report the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) declared that the alternative engine program is “no longer needed as a hedge against the failure of the main Joint Strike Fighter engine program” and eliminating it “will result in estimated near-term savings of over half a billion dollars.” Using blunter language, Citizens Against Government Waste gave the project its 2010 “Oinker Award,” calling it “the little engine that couldn’t.”
Meanwhile, leaders of the U.S. military agree that the money spent on the extra engine could be better used on programs that really do support the troops and defend the nation. Marine Corps Brigadier General David Heinz has said that the alternate engine costs as much as 50 to 80 aircraft. Chief of Naval Operations Gary Roughead warns that “its additional costs threaten our ability to fund currently planned aircraft procurement quantities, which would exacerbate our anticipated decrease in strike fighter capacity.”
These issues hit home with me. I earned my wings at the U.S. Air Force Flight School in Laredo, Texas, and served as an instructor pilot in the undergraduate pilot training program. My daughter is a fulltime member of the Rhode Island Army Guard and, in 2004, interrupted her studies at Roger Williams School of Law to be deployed to Iraq.
I know that our war-fighters don’t need unused engines gathering dust. Among other much more sensible investments, our servicemen and women do need more jet fighters, more and better armored vehicles, pay raises for themselves and their families, and better benefits for returning veterans. If the nation spends $2.9 billion more on engines that we don’t need, we won’t be able to afford the programs that our troops and our returning veterans really do need.
Defense programs should promote our national security, not local economies. But some supporters of the extra engine have claimed it will generate jobs. In fact, many of those jobs will go to Great Britain since Rolls Royce is manufacturing 40 percent of the engine. As it happens, Pratt & Whitney is a major presence in Southern New England, with its headquarters in East Hartford, Connecticut, and a plant in Middletown. Laser Fare Inc., in Smithfield, Rhode Island, which specializes in laser machining and research and development, is a supplier for Pratt & Whitney.
As a program that has long outlived its purported purposes, the extra engine has been called the earmark that wouldn’t die. It’s time to put the extra engine to rest, once and for all.
Mark Zaccaria is a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives from Rhode Island’s Second District. A former instructor pilot in the U.S. Air Force, he now operates a consulting practice in business to business marketing, based in North Kingstown.