The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is four years behind schedule and nearly $150 billion over budget. It comes as no surprise to many who have been following the F-35’s progress that the jet’s current engine, the F-135, faces similar challenges. In fact, the F-135 is now 50% more expensive than its 2001 cost estimate. Just this month it was reported the engine may require another $1 billion to complete.
Last week the House of Representatives approved legislation that would kill the development of one of the few cost control mechanisms remaining for this procurement: the F-136 engine. At the heart of the debate is whether or not Congress is willing to complete the upfront development costs of the F-136, which are estimated to be up to $950 million by the manufacturer. Even though the department has struggled to control the cost growth of this program, we are penny wise and pound foolish in refusing to invest in resources that are projected to save up to $20 billion dollars over the life of the fighter.
I agree with Secretary Gates on many issues, his judgment is usually spot on. But his position of the alternate engine is baffling given that analyses provided by the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have each concluded that investing in competition within the F-35 engine program would be budget neutral and could even save money over the life of the program. Further, funding the F-136 offers non-financial benefits that the DoD enjoyed through competition in the F-16 fighter program. These include the following: improved engine performance, enhanced safety and operational readiness, increased contractor responsiveness and innovation, and a sustained industrial base for future aircraft programs.
Those who cite the F-136 as an “earmark” ignore the fact that development of a second engine for the F-35 was an integral part of the program of record, and was fully funded by the DoD until its fiscal year 2007 budget submission. Some also cite the F-136’s British lineage as an “outsourcing” of American jobs, while remaining silent on the fact that some components of the F-135 will be produced in Turkey and Poland. Finally, both the Weapons Systems Acquisition Reform Act and the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review both highlight the importance of competition throughout the life of major weapons programs for all of the benefits I have mentioned.
Cutting unnecessary spending is responsible. I have embraced Secretary Gates’ efforts to reduce the rate of growth of the DoD budget through his efficiency initiatives. However, with regard to sustained competition in the F-35 program, I disagree strongly with efforts to block investment in the F-136.
Congressman Jim Moran, a Democrat, represents the 8th district of Virginia.