Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Experts, Contractors, and the F-35 Alternate Engine

After voting 58-40 to remove funding for additional F-22 fighter jets from the annual defense authorization bill, the Senate is turning its attention to the nation's other jet fighter program, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. An amendment filed by Senator Joe Lieberman and nine other Senators would remove $439 million in funding for the development of an alternate engine for the F-35.

Reasonable arguments can be made both for and against funding a second engine for the Joint Strike Fighter. Supporters of the alternate engine claim that competition between Pratt & Whitney, the manufacturer of the original F-35 engine, and the General Electric-Rolls Royce partnership developing the alternate engine would improve reliability and drive down costs over time. In a March 2007 report, the Government Accountability Office found that long-term cost savings generated by competition might exceed the cost of the second engine. Alternate engine opponents, including the Obama administration, argue that the program is unnecessary, unlikely to provide sufficient benefits over time to cover development costs, and likely to ultimately shrink America's fighter fleet as funds are diverted from F-35 production to engine development.

Among the many voices engaged in debate over the wisdom of the second engine are former military officials and think-tank experts. For example, former Air Combatant Command commander Gen. John Michael Loh has publicly argued against the second engine, while retired Air Force Gen. Chuck Horner has gone on record in favor of the alternate. However, the opinions of Loh, Horner, and some other analysts are not fully independent and impartial--Loh is a consultant for Pratt and Whitney, and Horner is a General Electric consultant.

Another expert with questionable impartiality involved in the F-35 engine debate is Loren Thompson from the Lexington Institute, who landed in hot water last June for his comments on the Air Force's aerial tanker contract competition. Thompson has recently been arguing against the second engine, but his staunch opposition contrasts with his public statements on the program in 2005 and 2006. For example, in 2006 he expressed concerns over a Pratt & Whitney “monopoly” but now criticizes use of this term and worries that a second engine would sacrifice economies of scale. This change in tone may be completely innocent, but the Lexington Institute's receipt of funds from Pratt & Whitney raises questions about Thompson's impartiality. Thompson admitted this funding relationship in 2008 but stated that Lexington Institute had received money from donors on both sides of the issue. He also characterized Pratt & Whitney's contributions as a “very small portion” of the Lexington Institute's revenues.

POGO doesn't have a strong position on the alternate engine debate. We just hope the government isn't traveling further down the military-industrial-congressional rabbit hole by relying on the analysis of experts from entities with a financial interest in

(H/t to POGO intern Ana O'Harrow for her invaluable research on this issue)

UPDATE: The Senate just voted to strike funding for the alternate engine.