Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Beware the Zombie

As veteran analyst Dr. Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute wrote in a late February blog on Forbes.com, the F136 extra engine has never made much sense, in large measure because the defense industry simply doesn’t work the same way as the consumer-driven marketplace.

Thompson notes, “Pentagon policymakers have argued every year since 2007 that GE’s ‘alternate engine’ is a waste of money that would duplicate efforts already made to develop the Pratt & Whitney propulsion system without providing corresponding benefits.”

Yet the F136 has lived on even longer than that. Its protracted gestation dates back to losing campaigns on the part of General Electric to have its engine chosen by Joint Strike Fighter finalists Lockheed Martin and Boeing, both of whom independently chose Pratt & Whitney’s F135 design instead. The F135 has gone on to power every F-35 flight to date, been certified by the government, and made a smooth transition to production.

Thompson argues the F136 has been buffeted by the turbulence of overriding the Pentagon’s oft-expressed wishes and best interests. “As the sole customer for the two engines, the government must cover all the costs of designing a second engine, developing and testing it, equipping and manning a second production line, funding a second supplier network, and sustaining a parallel maintenance and support infrastructure across the lifetime of the program.” In short, there’s a reason why no American military aircraft developed in the last three decades has featured multiple engines, nor for that matter do you see choices in avionics, landing gear and other major on-board systems.

Moreover, the cost of sustaining the F136 and bringing it to the market could equate to $8 billion in total, according to the federally funded Institute for Defense Analyses. The chances of such a massive investment ever being repaid is primary reason why the Pentagon and White House under both Democratic and Republican control have repeated sought to terminate the F136.

And that daunting figure presumes no further F136 teething troubles. By contrast, Pratt & Whitney’s F135 is derived from the proven F119 aboard all F-22 Raptors. Thompson adds, “Since the GE engine was begun later and not based on any prior design, its team is not as far down the learning curve and thus is likely to produce a less reliable engine.”

Lastly, Thompson debunks the notion that two engine suppliers will create more jobs, because the total number of engines will not change. “As a study by the consulting firm Whitney, Bradley & Brown pointed out, that means twice the number of vendors (with smaller amounts of work), twice the tooling, and twice the oversight…If there was a net gain in jobs from splitting the work among two teams, that presumably would be due to the inefficiency of the arrangement — inefficiency that raised rather than lowered the government’s costs.”

Two hundred and thirty-three cost-conscious members of the House of Representatives, especially dozens of Republican freshmen, took a big step in the right direction recently by voting to eliminate further funds for the wasteful F136.

– EagleBlogger

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