Like a bad B-grade horror movie monster, the General Electric/Rolls-Royce F136 extra engine is threatening to rise from its grave. No matter that Congress eliminated all FY2011 funding just weeks ago, marking the culmination of years of stoic determination expressed by consecutive Republican and Democratic presidents, as well as their respective secretaries of defense.
Instead, the F136’s dwindling but vocal advocates are now trying to hold the entire F-35 program hostage by arm-twisting the House Armed Services Committee. Still smarting from the extra engine’s defunding and subsequent termination by the Department of Defense, its backers have conceived a seemingly innocuous plan to “self-fund” the remaining development. Yet there is no free lunch for the American taxpayer here, since any military engine testing will require access to government-owned property and facilities, not to mention ongoing government oversight. And all that costs money.
Moreover, they’ve devised a "scorched earth" tactic that would withhold performance improvement funds for the proven Pratt & Whitney F135 unless their developmental engine is brought back to life. Never mind the fact that the F135 meets all current and anticipated thrust requirements, they say, let alone the prospect of further duplication and senseless waste at a time of unprecedented economic uncertainty and more pressing defense priorities.
Even before these latest parliamentary gimmicks were fully exposed, the Boston Globe remarked in a May 1 editorial, "It’s the height of corporate entitlement for a defense contractor to keep trying to sell the Pentagon a fighter engine that the Pentagon manifestly doesn’t want."
As news about the HASC maneuver surfaced, Paul Bedard of U.S. News reported in a May 4 article that fiscal conservatives might face “an embarrassing second vote on the funding for the engine." Bedard went on to quote a conservative House adviser who said, "It’s unbelievable they could be that thick-headed. With the deficit at $1.7 trillion this year, my GOP has to get serious."
GE had told the government it needed $450 million annually in FY 2011 and 2012 in order to compete in 2015. Now that GE is faced with spending their own cash, they claim they’ll do it for $100 million and compete in 2016. So, what was the other $350 million a year for and who will fund the additional $3 billion really needed to get the F136 to competition?
Such intransigence stands in stark contrast not only to continued strong performance by the F135 in more than 800 F-35 test flights, including roughly 90 flawless vertical landings for the STOVL F-35B, but also in deliveries. All 20 engines from low rate initial production (LRIP) lots 1 and 2 have now been delivered, along with the first LRIP 3 engine in early May. F135 engines in LRIP 3 meet established affordability targets and include engine modifications and improvements based on findings from the F-35 flight test program. Moreover, that engine’s close relative, the Pratt & Whitney JSF119, is literally now part of aviation history, following its recent installation at the Smithsonian Institution at the National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.
Here’s hoping majorities in both houses of Congress charged with the twin burdens of austere fiscal responsibility and judicious defense spending will continue to beat back the extra engine. We’ve said it before, but feel compelled to say it again: no means no. Even an addlebrained zombie should understand that much.