Tom Schatz

Congress’s version of the $640 toilet seat

By Tom Schatz
May 26, 2010

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HISTORY IS REPLETE with examples of wasteful defense spending, such as the $436 hammer and the $640 toilet seat. The latest is a $2.9 billion alternate engine for the Joint Strike Fighter. This time Congress is to blame, not the Pentagon.

Since 2006, the Pentagon and both the Bush and Obama administrations have been trying to eliminate what they consider an unnecessary and expensive alternate engine for the Joint Striker Fighter, which is being built by General Electric and Rolls Royce. Yet Congress has earmarked more than $1.2 billion for the alternate engine since 2004, and the House Armed Services Committee earmarked $485 million more for fiscal year 2011.

Most of the alternate engine’s supporters hail from states that have facilities that will produce parts for the program. That includes the GE plant in Lynn, which helps to explain Democratic Representative John Tierney’s endorsement of the engine. He had 17 earmarks worth $13.4 million in fiscal year 2010, according to Citizens Against Government Waste.

Joining Tierney is Democratic Senator John Kerry as well as Republican Senator Scott Brown, who said in an April Globe story that he “was disappointed that the administration’s budget cut funding for the Joint Strike Fighter alternate engine and will work with fellow members of the delegation to find a solution.’’

The president’s budget stated that, “since the main engine program for the JSF is progressing well, a second engine program is unnecessary and there is no longer any need to support two separate contractors.’’

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has repeatedly called for a veto of any legislation that funds the project. “The proposed engine is based on the design they currently have on the test stand, which we are deeply concerned may not meet the performance needs of the Joint Strike Fighter,’’ he said last week. “Any cost to take the design to required JSF performance levels would presumably be paid by taxpayers.’’ That means the $2.9 billion is just a starting point.

Proponents claim that an alternate engine introduces competition to the acquisition process, which will lead to lower costs and provide better engine safety and reliability.

These arguments might make sense in other circumstances, but the evidence is firmly against the GE-Rolls Royce project.

First, private-sector competition took place in 1996, and the engine manufactured by Pratt & Whitney was chosen as the single engine for the Joint Strike Fighter when the final contract was awarded in 2001.

Competition does not mean buying two of everything. Unfortunately, members of Congress often ensure that losing bidders receive pork-barrel earmarks.

Second, the alternate engine increases costs because it requires duplicate production and assembly lines, spare parts, and repair centers while eliminating the economies of scale offered by purchasing a single engine in greater volume. It would also reduce the overall number of aircraft.

Finally, both the F-18 and the F-22 use engines that are sole sourced; advancements in engine design, testing, and production allow the Pentagon to manage any risks associated with single-engine systems. The current Joint Strike Fighter engine has received government certification and is already being produced.

Conversely, the alternate engine has been plagued with problems, with about 200 hours of testing compared to 13,000 for the Pratt & Whitney engine, and has yet to power an airplane in flight.

We should spare no expense for the brave men and women who protect our country, but funding an expensive and unneeded alternate engine for the Joint Strike Fighter does nothing to make the country safer; it only wastes critical defense dollars.

Tom Schatz is president of Citizens Against Government Waste.

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