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Bite the Hand that Feeds

December 23, 2010

Congress just passed a stopgap bill to keep federal funding at current levels through March. Republicans tried to squash any attempts at funding healthcare or financial reform agencies as being too costly, but one measure that managed to stay in was funding for the F-35 alternate engine.
By the skin of its teeth, the GE/Rolls Royce partnership building the alternate engine for the Joint Strike Fighter maintained its funding from last year, $430 million. Congress has been funding this effort for the last fourteen years and even with a "new" no-earmark "fiscally responsible" party about to take over, it's not about to hit the chopping block yet. Secretary Gates considers the program wasteful and unnecessary and Obama had said he would veto any bill that included new funding for it, though I suspect he won't veto this bill.
When's an alternate engine a good thing? When you have doubts about the contractor making the primary engine. When there's a remarkable improvement with the alternate engine. When the company making the primary engine may not be able to deliver. But most importantly, only when you are looking to phase in the alternate at some point in your production. Engine development is expensive. First there's obtaining the base hardware than making all the improvements you plan to as a gradual process. There's a lot of R&D that goes into most defense engines, they do not come standard one size fits all and there's a lot of time on both the engine side and the aircraft side in making a good fit, doing the appropriate amount of testing, and getting the needed certifications and oversight from the federal government. Oversight from federal employees who are looking at a two year pay freeze while GE and its Ohio management employees will get to suck up millions more in federal funding for an engine that after 14 years is apparently still not ready for final phase and does not look to be a necessary alternative to the current engine.
In a move that will make you blink, the conservative Brookings Institue actually recommends cutting or cancelling entirely the whole of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter budget. Their report is like a report written in complete denial. They admit current defense budgets, not including the war(s) effort, is 5% of GDP compared to 8 or 9% in the 1960s, 5% in Reagen's time, and 3 and 4% up until 2007. Thus it considers this level "moderate". It applauds Secretary Gates' efforts at reducing overspending programs and then offers this assessment:

In 2010, he proposed closing Joint Forces Command, reducing the number of flag officers in the military, and curbing contractor workforces by 10 percent a year for three years running. This last recommendation is dubious. Calls for reduction of some arbitrary percentage in a workforce over some period of time are appealing but usually unsuccessful, if the past is a guide. For example, similar goals were established in the 1990s for privatizing defense support functions, with an eerily similar goal of finding 30 percent savings in total support spending. But this effort was largely unsuccessful—privatization did occur in many areas, but 30 percent savings did not, and in fact overall trend lines in operating accounts did not curve downward at all.

A conservative think tank admitting that privatizing everything doesn't actually save money? But let's continue to not give our federal employees raises while we let this engine project drag on and on. I don't know what definition of earmarks the new congress will be using when the new majority is pledging to forgo them, but I hope someone stands up against this ridiculous kind of pet project. Four hundred million might not seem like a lot. This estimate stated extending a public healthcare option to tens of millions of uninsured Americans would cost less than $1 trillion over 10 years. Or, you guessed it, less than we spend on this engine. It's reasonable to fund successful defense programs that are important to our national security and protect soldiers on the ground. It's unreasonable to keep funding these wasteful, local pet projects.

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