Seven Billion Dollar Boondoggle: Congress wasted defense dollars on duplicate jet engines

Member Group : Lincoln Institute

The rush to borrow and spend trillions of dollars under the guise of stimulating the economy has largely not applied to what is actually the core function of the federal government: the military.

Some will argue that the billions spent conducting simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has exhausted the nation’s willingness to spend money on national defense. However, it is also true that that the added funding has gone largely to cover the logistical and personnel costs of operating in two active theaters. In the process, investment in military hardware – the infrastructure utilized by our deployed forces – has been given short shrift.

Not only has investment in the nation’s military infrastructure not kept pace, but the current inventory of equipment and munitions has been stressed by the wear and tear of active use over the past eight years along with the fact that some has been destroyed by our enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Given the Obama Administration’s bias against the military, it is unlikely that any significant additional funding will be forthcoming. This despite the fact that increased military spending would generate real jobs in manufacturing that could help lead America out of the current economic recession.

It is therefore imperative that the Pentagon does something it is not especially good at doing: spend our defense dollars effectively and efficiently with a minimum amount of waste and duplication. In other words, money must be spent on producing those armaments that are most critically needed to defend the nation given the current challenges we face.

The Pentagon, however, is not the only institution that must remain focused. Defense dollars, as does all federal spending, must be appropriated by Congress. And Congress all too often sets spending priorities based upon political considerations rather than actual need and effectiveness.

An example of this is the production of engines for the new F-35 being produced for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps by the Lockheed Corporation. Congress has mandated that not one, but two engines for the plane be developed simultaneously. One engine is being developed for Lockheed by Pratt & Whitney, but Congress insists that an "alternative" engine also be developed by the General Electric Corporation.

The main argument for having two companies working on the same project is competition. But, competition should have taken place during the bidding process for the F-35 project. And, costs of development should have been borne by the companies themselves during that process, or incorporated into the bids. To pay two companies to produce the same project only doubles the cost.

This fact has been recognized by both the Bush and Obama administrations, each of which has asked that Congress eliminate the alternative engine project. Despite this, the House has already including funding for the alternative F-35 engine in its budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Air Force General Mark Shackelford, testifying before a Senate subcommittee last month, said the costs of producing two engines will mean cutting the number of planes the military will receive by as many as 53 planes over the next five years.

It is worth noting that production of the F-35 engine by the Pratt & Whitney team is already well under way. Retired General John Michael Lox, a former Air Force vice Chief of Staff, wrote recently in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that the new F-35 engine is "in production and exceeding expectations." He claims it is one of the most successful engine development programs in history.

Still, Congress is insisting on development of an alternative engine. The costs of that will ultimately total over $7.2 billion. That will significantly increase the final production costs of the planes. Ultimately, the U.S. military and our allies around the world are projected to purchase some 3,000 of these aircraft. So the economic impact of developing two engines will be significant.

Political considerations are playing a major role in the continued life of the alternative F-35 engine. Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) is a key supporter and much of the work on the alternative engine would be done in Ohio, a key Presidential battleground state and one reeling from high unemployment.

To his credit, President Obama has singled out the alternative engine as an example of Congressional wasteful spending. But it is worse than just waste. It is a large expenditure of taxpayer dollars on a program that will not improve America’s ability to defend itself and its interests across the globe.

At a time when the military budget is tight and stressed, and the challenges confronting our nation are great, wasting $5 billion on duplicate development of a fighter engine is not something we can afford – financially or militarily.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected])

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