Eliminating F-35 Engine Choice: Cutting Our Nose to Spite Our Face
(Source: Heritage Foundation; issued Sept. 8, 2009)
Defense Secretary Robert Gates indicated on September 1st that staff would recommend President Obama veto any legislation that continues to fund the F136, the alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). “We feel strongly there is not a need for the second engine,” he told reporters.

That same day, however, General Electric and Rolls Royce offered to sell the F136 to the military through a fixed-price contract, an arrangement that some say could cut costs by 20%. The primary engine, the Pratt and Whitney F135, by contrast, is thought by some to be nearly $2 billion over budget.

The decision facing Congress this fall is whether to continue supporting competition or whether to turn back and create an engine monopoly. Before reaching a decision, Congress should carefully weigh the costs of proceeding against the costs of turning back.

Turning back now will lead to some immediate cost savings, but since the development of the F136 is already 70% complete, it should largely be viewed as a sunk cost. Down the line, however, eliminating a second engine may result in ballooning costs and waste.

A process without competition is likely to lead to reduced efficiency and innovation and possibly produce an inferior product, Heritage Foundation Senior Analyst for National Security Mackenzie M. Eaglen cautioned last month. Eaglen also warned that the Air Force could incur significant military risks if a problem with the F135 grounds the fleet and the military has no alternative available.

There may also be a political cost to discontinuing the F136 program. Several U.S. allies–including the Netherlands, the U.K., Italy, Canada, Turkey, and Australia–are relying on the F136 engine and have long been convinced of the benefits of a competitive two-vendor production process. They have made significant investments in the program.

The JSF engine will be used in 90% of all U.S. military fighters by 2035, and in the fleets of several other partner nations. Paying more in 2010 may lead to savings in the future and increased security for the U.S. and our allies over the coming decades.

Slashing the F136, by contrast, may simply be a case of cutting our nose to spite our face. (ends)

Gates Signals F-35 Fighter Will Be Administration Priority
(Source: Lexington Institute; issued September 8, 2009)
(© Lexington Institute; reproduced by permission)
Defense secretary Robert Gates has finally found a weapons system he likes. After canceling or cutting back over a dozen major programs in April -- and setting the stage for additional cuts in the fiscal 2011 budget submission -- Gates has embraced the F-35 joint strike fighter, officially known as the Lightning II. On August 31, Secretary Gates visited the sprawling Lockheed Martin fighter plant in Fort Worth where the company will execute the huge program in concert with key subcontractors Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems, and engine-maker Pratt & Whitney. But it wasn't the mere fact he showed up that mattered, it is what he said while he was there.

According to Reuters, Gates stated that he was encouraged by progress on the F-35, and went on to say that "the high-risk elements associated with this developmental program are largely behind us." That was a telling comment, because budgeteers are targeting weapons programs that look too risky, and the media have recently revived a story first disclosed last year by Bloomberg Business News that the Pentagon's Joint Estimating Team was predicting a two-year delay in the F-35 development effort. That prediction was based on extrapolating experience from the F-22 fighter program to the F-35, as if Lockheed Martin and its team-mates had learned nothing from the earlier program.

So the fact that Secretary Gates expressed confidence in the program is a clear signal that he does not agree with some of the pessimistic reports appearing in the press. Gates would not take ownership of a program if his advisors were saying there were significant uncertainties as to price and performance. Both the F-35 joint program office and prime contractor disputed the projection of the Joint Estimating Team when it first appeared, and so far their own predictions of steady progress appear to be coming true. The contractors have been systematically identifying issues with the airframe, engines, subsystems and software, and one by one resolving them. About 85% of key development tasks are now completed, with no sign of serious trouble.

Boeing and Airbus must wish they could make that claim about their latest commercial jets. It is a remarkable achievement to develop three distinctly different variants of a next-generation tactical aircraft for three different military services without running into any real show-stoppers. Even if Lockheed had learned nothing from F-22, it knows the fate of its aeronautics business is riding on the wings of the F-35, so this is one time when the "A-team" is definitely in charge. As a result, F-35 could be the most successful development effort for a major military aircraft since the F-16 fighter debuted in the 1970s.

That's somewhat ironic, since the F-35 is destined to eventually replace the F-16 in the joint inventory and the air forces of overseas allies. Despite the complexity of involving so many allies in the program from its early stages, the strategy is yielding both economic and operational benefits. Bigger production runs and commonality across variants mean lower costs per plane, and use of the same aircraft by allies bolsters wartime interoperability. So far, the allies seem happy with what they are getting: the United Kingdom plans to buy 138, with deliveries starting in 2011; Italy will buy 131 starting in 2014; Australia and Turkey will each buy 100 starting in 2014; Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Israel will all be major buyers. So F-35 is as much about global partnering and our balance of trade as it is about the need to replace America's aging fleet of cold-war fighters.

Secretary Gates could not have picked a better program to embrace.


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