Monday, October 19, 2009

More Engines = Fewer F-35s?

Those of us just young enough to remember our childhood will recall the cartoon character Wimpy from Popeye who promised, “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” Even in our formative years, this ruse was a clarion call to be wary of deals that seem to good to be true.

Surely the same can be said for the increasingly desperate attempts by alternative engine proponents to mask the true costs of this still nascent program, not just now, but in the so-called “out years” as well. But don’t take our word for it.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a consistently vocal critic of the alternative engine sent a letter on October 14 to House Defense Appropriations Chairman John Murtha stating, “This program is unnecessary and could disrupt the overall JSF program by diverting resources away from efforts needed for the continuation of the program. If the final bill presented to the President would seriously disrupt the JSF program, I would recommend that he veto the bill.” Strong words indeed from a man who has served two presidents of opposing parties in the role of defense secretary, especially given the vital needs driven by two ongoing wars in Southwest Asia and emerging threats elsewhere in the world.

According to Congressional Budget Office testimony to the House Budget Committee that same day, the Pentagon will need non-war spending to average six percent more than the amount sought for FY10 over the next 18 years to fulfill the current administration’s plans. Yet, real growth in military and civilian pay and benefits, combined with projected increases in operations and maintenance costs exacerbated by the current high operations tempo, will consume roughly two-thirds of the DOD budget. House Budget Chairman John Spratt said these fixed costs could “squeeze out” funding for R&D and procurement, both vital to military equipment recapitalization. Steve Daggett from the Congressional Research Service testified that acquisition accounts could decrease from 35 percent of the FY10 budget to just 24 percent in FY20.

Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell amplified Secretary Gates’ sentiment, also from October 14. “Let me take this opportunity to note that even if the Congress provides an appropriation in one year, and it doesn't potentially impact additional airframes, a one-year allocation doesn't deal with how we look at a potential second engine program,” he said. “We look at this over at least a five-year time span, and we need to have a better sense of the funding stream over the life of that program.”

Therefore, every dollar counts, arguably even more as the years pass. A proposed House-Senate compromise F136 funding line of $560 million in FY10 to pay for the extra engine simply cannot be expected in future budget cycles. The figures from the recent CBO testimony make that abundantly clear. Alternate engine proponents make much of the money already spent for this engine as a rationale for continuing it. Let’s be clear, to field the alternate engine, by the government’s own figures, will cost an additional $4-$5 billion. The fallacy of the sunk cost is one of the most common decision traps. Funding this engine this year, an engine our warfighters say they don’t need and don’t want, and that is years behind the primary engine that the President and Secretary of Defense say works and that they are pleased with, is truly throwing good money after bad.

Ironically, this unfunded mandate for an extra engine could come at the expense of total F-35 airframes, the worst possible outcome for our armed forces. Wasteful duplicity is bad enough. But to do so in a way that is unsustainable and may actually result in fewer F-35 aircraft, thereby driving up the unit cost of each with no increase in capability, is a lose-lose proposition that is simply irresponsible. Sadly, unlike our two-dimensional friend Wimpy, it’s no joke.

-- Eagleblogger

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