Eliminating F-35 Engine Choice: Cutting Our Nose to Spite Our Face


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.

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