Thursday, May 5, 2011

Osama Dies, Worthless War Tech Is Immortal In Congress

Osama Dies, Worthless War Tech Is Immortal In Congress: "

Updated, 6:05 p.m.

Four days after the death of Osama bin Laden, members of Congress sent a message to Leon Panetta, the CIA director nominated to become the next secretary of defense. It concerns jet engines — and the defense budget. And it goes something like this:

Dear Leon,

You know what was nifty? You killing Osama. It’s funny — Bob Gates, your predecessor, didn’t kill Osama. But you know what he did kill? The second engine for the Joint Strike Fighter. Leon, we love you just the way you are.

After a five year struggle with Congress, the Defense Department cut the propulsive heart out of the family of jets called the Joint Strike Fighter, leaving the planes with a single engine as a propulsion system. Both the Bush and Obama administrations assessed that the second engine, built by GE and Rolls Royce and known as the F136, was a superfluous expense, tacking an extra $450 million onto the defense budget every year. Finally, the delayed budget for fiscal 2011 didn’t include funding for the F136 engine and the Pentagon cancelled the GE/Rolls Royce contract last month.

It looked like the engine’s biggest enemy, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, had won. But supporters, like Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, vowed to bring the engine back from the dead after Gates retires this summer. On Thursday, McKeon got a move on.

In a speech at the Heritage Foundation blasting Obama’s impending defense budget cuts, McKeon announced that GE and Rolls will fund the engine “on their own dime” during the next fiscal year. “Thanks to their willingness to compromise, we’ll break up a monopoly; potentially harvest billions in savings, while fielding a more capable, more robust fighter jet,” McKeon said.

But that’s not all. As McKeon’s committee marks up the defense authorization bill for fiscal 2012, a curiosity found its way into the plan for the Air Force’s much-anticipated new bomber. The bill would direct the Air Force to construct a “competitive” acquisition strategy for the bomber’s propulsion system, reminiscent of the dueling Joint Strike Fighter engine.

That could delay the bomber’s production and make it uber-expensive –the same reasons Gates offered for killing the Air Force’s last next-gen bomber. And it flies in the face of Gates’ acquisitions chief, Ashton Carter, who’s vowed to rein in program costs for major systems.

A directed government engine development and competition effort could add significant unwanted time and cost to development,” Mark Gunzinger of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments laments to Inside Defense, ”and the prime contractors would probably have to wait until the competition was completed before they completed their final designs, adding even more growth to the program.”

Program bloat and sloth may be bad for the defense budget. But they’re great for lawmakers, who get to bring home jobs to their districts and reap tons of cash from contractors. Just look at how GE makes it rain.

More broadly, Panetta should be viewing this initial round of jet-engine jousting with the Hill as a statement of intent. McKeon has said since last fall’s election that cutting defense is a red line for him. Gates has fought for years to kill programs like the second engine for the Joint Strike Fighter, and Congress isn’t even waiting till he’s gone to undo one of his signature efforts.

Panetta, a former White House budget chief and congressman, got the top defense nod in part for his anticipated ability to implement Obama’s budget cuts. Along the way, he helped kill the most notorious terrorist in the world. If he thinks that he’s going to get a measure of deference on his ability to keep the country safe while trimming its defense budget, he’s been away from the Hill for too long.

Update: Our missileer friend John Noonan, now a spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee, sends along this counterpoint:

I have to take issue with your piece. It missed the mark in a few key areas.

First, there was no mention of the fact that the Pratt & Whitney engine is deeply over budget, or any amplification of Chairman McKeon’s concern that early cost problems with a decades-long, $100 billion engine program are a giant red flag. Nor was there mention that GE is doing precisely what we’ve been pressuring contractors to do for decades — namely, figuring out innovative ways to control weapon costs. They should be praised, not mocked, for their efforts.

Second, insinuating that program creep is somehow beneficial for Congressional proponents of the F136 engine was a little out of line. Chairman McKeon laid out a strong fiscal case for the program in his Heritage Foundation speech, as well as his skepticism in entrusting the engine contract for 90 percent of our fighter force to a monopoly. That’s precisely the type of penny-wise/pound-foolish purchasing strategy that has hounded the Pentagon for years.

If you’re looking for more recent examples, a senior acquisition official at the Defense Department recently informed the committee that competition for the Air Force’s KC-X tanker drove down the overall purchase price by a full 20 percent. The so-called F-16 “engine wars” from the 1980s mimics that trend (the very reason the Pentagon wanted a competitive engine program in the first place), as well as the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship buy. Competition is a proven cost control mechanism, and we think that talk of “extra engines” is inaccurate and unhelpful to the debate.

Given the tight fiscal times we live in, the chairman is trying to making every penny in the defense budget count. To suggest he has more sinister intentions is simply wrong.

Photo: U.S. Air Force


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