It’s budget markup season in Washington, which means a plethora of seemingly well-intentioned funding requests emanating like songs from the mythical Greek sirens, who lured nearby sailors to the rocky shoreline. Congress would be wise to be wary of these enchanting, but ultimately perilous calls.
Yet some Congressional leaders seem to be swayed, once again, into lending their support for the F136 extra engine for the JSF, despite billions wasted to date, decades of successful single engine military aircraft, strong performance by the F135 primary engine, and the crushing expense of higher priorities in a climate where our nation is facing record budget deficits.
On the one hand, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) expresses his admiration for Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ passion for fiscal restraint by stating he “deserves high grades for courage” and that Congress would “like to be helpful.” But then he embraces the false notion of future competition for the engine to power the JSF, despite the Pratt & Whitney F135’s numerous wins throughout the F-35’s development and detailed reports that show that the F136 will consume another $2.9 billion in the unlikely hope of saving $1 billion later.
This knee-jerk reaction to buck the oft-stated wishes of the White House and Defense Department is puzzling, especially given Gates’ most recent comments on the urgent need to reign in runaway spending. En route to Kansas City on May 7, he told the media, “The message that I've had for the Congress over the last couple of years (is) that a dollar that they make us spend on stuff we don't need is a dollar we can't spend on what we do need. And in this constrained budget environment, that becomes all the more important.”
It’s also puzzling that the Senate, which ultimately rejected funding the F136 by a vote of 59-38 in 2009, would now follow the House and re-insert funding during their own committee markup process. The rhetorical similarities are disturbingly striking. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and chairman of that body’s air-land panel said, "The committee has always believed that, to be a balanced program, competition needed to be an element of the engine program." Yet, this competition argument has been debunked before, and for good measure, the Pentagon’s acquisition chief Ashton Carter reiterated on May 4, “There is not a good analytical case that the upfront costs of the second engine would be paid back."
During his airborne press conference, Gates added, “One of the members of Congress, I'm told, said, ‘Well, why is $3 billion for the alternative engine such a big deal when we've got a trillion-dollar deficit?’ I would submit that's one of the reasons we have a trillion-dollar deficit, is that kind of thinking.”
In light of the current economic crisis, ongoing war efforts and the strong anti-earmark political climate, it seems Congress would want to make a clean break from pork barrel politics. Resist funding the F136 not simply to avoid the embarrassment and needless conflict associated with a potential Presidential veto. Do so because if this sort of wasteful spending isn’t stopped now, then there is little hope such budgetary recklessness will ever be curtailed. Ignore the selfish and deceitful sirens; instead, heed the clarion call of truth. If not now, when?