The leaves have finally changed color here in autumnal Washington, yet a new season doesn’t necessarily equate to any variety in behavior among backers of the F136 extra engine. Despite losing multiple industry-driven and government-sanctioned competitions to power the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, followed by clear opposition from two consecutive presidential administrations of opposing parties, the extra engine team persists. Like an ill wind, nothing will neutralize their campaign to foist an unwanted, unaffordable and frankly underperforming powerplant on warfighters and taxpayers alike, even when Pratt & Whitney’s F135 has met or exceeded all performance milestones from testing into production.
So, how has GE stayed “in season” despite these and other setbacks? By buying influence for wasteful earmarks. According to an October 20th story by Bloomberg’s Rachel Layne, GE spent roughly $8.2 million since mid-2009 to lobby for their extra engine, including massive print and radio ad campaigns designed to generate grassroots support where none would otherwise be found. In doing so, GE has promised far more than their engine can deliver in horsepower or U.S. jobs.
Increased air pressure of the heated variety is also expected from across the Atlantic, home to F136 partner Rolls-Royce. First the UK government paid a visit to the White House and to Congress to request the continuation of the F136. Then, in light of severe budgetary pressure, their Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) called for a dramatic and surprising departure from the Short Take-Off / Vertical Landing F-35B to the F-35C Carrier Variant. While not in the SDSR, the door is apparently open for the UK to significantly reduce its planned buy of 138 F-35 aircraft. And while these latter developments should be good news for the U.S. Navy with regard to future Anglo-American aircraft carrier interoperability, it will not increase the number of holiday cards postmarked Derby, England.
As Flight International Defense Editor Craig Hoyle noted in his UK defense review analysis posted October 22, “Rolls-Royce will also suffer directly from the [SDSR] decision, with the US Marine Corps and potentially Italy now the only remaining buyers for the STOVL version, which features its lift fan technology. And it makes a continuation of its alternate F136 engine program for the Joint Strike Fighter with General Electric ever more important.”
Regardless of how you might feel about the UK’s parochial support for an engine they are increasingly unlikely to procure or the SDSR’s F-35 guidance, the combined Conservative-Liberal Democratic government at least has demonstrated once again bipartisanship exists and that extremely difficult decisions about national security priorities can be taken decisively. As members of the next Congress prepare to serve, they might pause and remember that fiscal conservatism is more than a bumper sticker pledge. It occasionally necessitates hard choices, ones that may not please K Street lobbyists or their domestic and foreign paymasters, who should embrace the cardinal business rule: the customer is always right. That’s what governing and serving the warfighter should be about, regardless of which way the wind blows.