Spare us the spare engines

Posted: Thursday, June 03, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Suppose you were buying a car, a Ford, say. Would it be wise to visit your local Chevy dealer's parts department and spend $5,000 or so for a Chevrolet engine, just in case the Ford's engine doesn't work out?

That is what the U.S. House did last week, but on a far larger scale. Late Thursday night, the House voted to keep $485 million in next year's defense budget for "backup" engines for Lockheed-Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The money is part of a larger $3 billion backup-engine plan.

None of the armed services that will fly the F-35 want backup engines. The Lockheed-Martin, which is building the F-35, doesn't want them. The Bush administration didn't want them, and the Obama administration doesn't want them either.

But 231 members of the House want them, Democrats and Republicans alike. Noted members of the Republican "government spending is out of control" caucus, including Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, Eric Cantor of Virginia and Mike Pence of Indiana, want them.

Since 2004, Congress has earmarked more than $1.5 billion for the redundant engines. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates recently said, "We in DOD must make tough choices and decisions to ensure that current and future military combat capabilities can be sustained in a time of budget stretches."

An F-35 with a Pratt & Whitney engine is working just fine.

But the House has allowed political interests to override nation's economic and security interests. Defense spending is not the only place this happens, but it's the most expensive place.

The Pentagon has ordered 2,443 F-35s; when Lockheed beat out Boeing Co. for the contract in 2001, the planes were budgeted at $59 million each. That has ballooned to $112 million, or $130 million each when research and development costs are apportioned.

Lockheed chose Connecticut-based Pratt & Whitney to supply the F-35's engines. But because the Pentagon buys warplanes in "lots" or batches, the losing bidder - a consortium between General Electric and Britain's Rolls Royce - kept its foot in the door. Suppose the P&W engines on the first batches of F-35s don't work out, GE/Rolls asked. How about we work on later lots?

This sounded fine to the Ohio delegation (GE Aviation is based in Cincinnati) and the Indiana delegation (Rolls bought Indianapolis' Allison Engineering in 1995). By trading favors, they've kept the program alive for seven years, deficits be damned.

The spare engines are part of the massive $567 billion defense appropriations bill and could be stripped out in the Senate. Senate Armed Services Committee member Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who previously had supported the backup engine, is having second thoughts. She told the magazine Defense Daily that her concerns about the national debt may outweigh her bias toward keeping competition alive. "We may not be able to afford it in this instance," she said.

McCaskill's concerns do not extend to Boeing's C-17 cargo plane; 900 St. Louis workers build C-17 components. The Air Force says it has plenty of C-17s already, and. Gates tried to kill the program last year. Congress funded 10 more anyway, but Gates still is intent on killing the program. He wants President Obama to veto the appropriations bill if it includes the C-17 and spare engine programs.

Nobody thinks the president will do that, but he should. It's time to get serious about both economic and military security.

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