Supporters of the F136 extra engine have hijacked a convenient, but ultimately misleading notion to breathe life into a patient declared dead on arrival by two presidents, the Pentagon and both Joint Strike Fighter airframer finalists (Lockheed Martin and Boeing). “Competition” makes a great bumper sticker, but as we’ve explained in the past, the facts often point in a different direction.
To illustrate our point, let’s revisit the U.S. Government Accountability Office report entitled “Analysis of Costs for the Joint Strike Fighter Engine Program” (March 22, 2007). F136 supporters have elevated this document to near mythical status, yet ironically, their interpretation based on selective reading is probably the source of many of today’s “competition myths.”
For example, while the GAO admitted the potential for some cost savings based on future F136 funding, it then stated on pages 1-2, “These results are dependent on how the government decides to run the competition, the number of aircraft that are ultimately purchased, and the exact ratio of engines awarded to each contractor.” So, in order to achieve savings, beyond those already delivered by Pratt & Whitney and others still to come based solely on F135 maturity, the U.S. government would have to rig a future competition to create enough F136 sales to recoup their investment.
Continuation of the F136 would certainly help “spread the wealth” (at least at the very top of the supply chain), yet the GAO advisory groups note such a diversification strategy was “made independent of the services’ ability to fund the program–meaning overall affordability should be taken into consideration.” However, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have consistently stated they lack the inclination, budget and physical space to support two F-35 engines. International customers are unlikely to divide their orders either. Therefore, a forced 50/50 split buy “competition” would rest primarily on the shoulders of the U.S. Air Force, dramatically and disproportionately increasing its training and logistical costs, as well as further complicating overseas deployments based on past F-15 and F-16 experience. The Air Force Chief, General Norton Schwartz has repeatedly said this is something he does not want forced upon his service.
Contrast this sub-optimal scenario with the clear advantages of retaining just one F-35 propulsion supplier. The GAO notes on page 6 of the report, “In the event that Pratt & Whitney is made the sole-source engine provider, future configuration changes to the aircraft and common components could be optimized for the F135 engine, instead of potentially compromised design solutions or additional costs needed to support both F135 and F136.” So, while the F136 team continues to divert attention from their own late, underperforming engine languishing on a test bed, the GAO has already recognized that future funds will be best spent on continuous improvements to the F135 already in production.
As the fight continues on Capitol Hill and in the court of public opinion, we maintain that the benefits of JSF engine competition have already been derived in the form of the F135, itself an evolution of the trusted and proven, F-22 powering F119. Bottom line: the best engine has already won, it continues to power every F-35 in flight, and it will continue to cost less as quantities rise. Diverting vital and scarce public funds to the F136 in the name of competition threatens to betray taxpayers and warfighters alike – and that is perhaps the most inconvenient truth of all.