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Joint Strike Fighter's GE jet engine: We can't afford it

The Pentagon and the Obama administration are at odds with the House over funding a second engine for the advanced fighter jet.

July 22, 2010

Are two engines better than one? That's the $485-million question that has turned into a political showdown between Congress and the Obama administration, and that will probably come to a head in coming weeks as committees resolve differing versions of a defense appropriations bill passed by the two houses.

The battle concerns the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Pentagon's most expensive weapons program ever. The stealth jet would be used by three branches of the military, creating efficiencies by sharing parts and production among them. It's also envisioned as the coolest piece of next-generation hardware since Wonder Woman's invisible jet, with the Marine Corps version capable of landing vertically like a Harrier and the Navy's able to take off from an aircraft carrier, and all three models able to perform bombing, air combat and troop support missions.

Unfortunately, the F-35 has proved more difficult and expensive to build than expected. And although the entire program has been called into question, there is no more contentious issue than the aircraft's engine. In 1998, Congress ordered two separate engine contracts. A similar strategy had been employed for the F-16 fighter's engine in the 1980s, and competitive pressures between the two contractors successfully brought down production costs and improved responsiveness. But in 2006, the George W. Bush administration decided that the second F-35 engine was an unnecessary waste and recommended canceling the one being designed by General Electric and Rolls-Royce in favor of the version from Pratt & Whitney. With thousands of aerospace jobs at stake, spread across several states, Congress opted to keep funding both programs anyway — and has continued to fund them ever since, despite annual objections from both the Bush and Obama administrations.

This year, President Obama is putting his foot down. He has vowed to veto any appropriations bill that contains the $485 million to fund the GE engine. Strongly in his corner is Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who says the GE engine doesn't meet performance standards and would require an additional $2.5 billion, on top of this year's $485 million, to complete. The House ignored them both. In May, it approved an appropriation bill that funded both engines, and a motion to strip out the GE version was defeated in a bipartisan 231-193 vote. The Senate's version of the bill doesn't fund the second engine, so now negotiators are working to reconcile the two versions.

It's tempting to see this as an example of Congress' all-too-typical addiction to pork; if it's incapable of cutting a defense program the Pentagon doesn't want, how can it possibly take on the deep spending cuts needed to reduce the yawning federal deficit? But it isn't quite that simple. There are solid reasons to keep funding both engines. A report by the Government Accountability Office determined that over the life cycle of the F-35, the engine competition could end up not only recouping its own costs but saving taxpayer money. Yet these future savings are highly theoretical, and the GAO's findings are contradicted by the Pentagon, whose own analysis projected no savings.

What's not theoretical is the billions needed to finish the GE engine, and that's why Obama and Gates are correct. The federal government simply cannot afford redundant weapons programs while trying to prop up an ailing economy and fight two wars, even if the programs could produce potential savings down the road. If Congress keeps the second engine running, Obama should kill the ignition by vetoing the appropriations bill.

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