Misplaced Priorities in the F-35 Engine Debate

Lawmakers Should Be Looking at the Plane Itself as a Way to Cut Military Spending

The debate over the alternate engine to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter continues to reflect the misplaced priorities of Congress as the Senate Armed Services Committee marks up the National Defense Authorization Act this week. This unnecessary piece of military spending may live to fight another day in the 2012 federal budget despite repeated requests from the Pentagon and the White House to terminate production of the second engine. More importantly, the controversy over the F-35’s alternate engine distracts from a bigger issue at play in the NDAA negotiations: the skyrocketing cost of the F-35 itself.

The debate over the alternate engine to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter plane has long been contentious. President George W. Bush—who was responsible for raising defense spending to levels not seen in the United States since the end of World War II—tried to cut the engine as early as 2007. Yet President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates are still fighting against Congress to rein in government spending on what Gates has called an “unnecessary and extravagant expense.”

The aircraft that won the original competition in 2001 on the F-35 design used a Pratt & Whitney engine. But up until 2006 the Bush administration also requested funding for an alternate engine, built by General Electric and Rolls-Royce, hoping competition would drive down costs in the long run.

Independent cost analyses by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Institute for Defense Analyses, however, have both determined that the savings from such competition would not be able to recoup the costs required for the Pentagon to continue funding two production lines, two supply networks, and two workforces for the separate engines.

The Pentagon and the White House have, since 2007, repeatedly asked Congress not to fund production of the second engine. Congress at last appeared to listen this February, voting 233 to 198 to terminate construction on the alternate engine in order to save between $2 billion and $3 billion in next year’s budget. GE and Rolls-Royce then offered to pay next year’s development costs for the engine and the House Armed Services Committee acquiesced, allowing the second engine to live on.

It seems like the taxpayer is getting a good deal out of this move, with GE and Rolls-Royce funding the project themselves for a year. But the text of the House’s version of the NDAA suggests otherwise. By mandating that any government funding for improvements to the first engine must come through a process of “competitive development,” the bill opens the door for renewed competition between the Pratt & Whitney engine and its GE/Rolls-Royce counterpart. If the Pratt & Whitney engine isn’t perfect, the government could be on the hook for funding two engines once again.

The House’s acceptance of this move by GE and Rolls-Royce has brought us to where we are today: with an unnecessary engine still floating around in the NDAA as the Senate Armed Services Committee marks up the bill.

The debate over the F-35’s alternate engine has revealed that pork-barrel spending can outweigh both campaign promises and national security even in this deficit-conscious Congress. Construction on the GE/Rolls-Royce engine takes place in Ohio, Indiana, and Massachusetts, and the three senators hailing from those states who sit on the Senate Armed Services Committee—Scott Brown (R-MA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Rob Portman (R-OH)—have all expressed their support for the project, despite their campaign pledges to rein in wasteful spending.

Unfortunately, the debate over the F-35’s alternate engine has distracted from the larger issue of the rising cost of the F-35 itself. The F-35 came with the promise of affordability, but current estimates place its lifetime operational cost at $1 trillion, more than twice the initial estimate of $420 billion.

As the Senate Armed Services Committee debates the NDAA in the coming weeks, senators need to examine the rising cost of the F-35 as a whole and not focus solely on the alternate engine debate.

Sam Klug is an intern with the National Security team at American Progress.