Competition Is Good…Unless It Involves a Second F-35 Engine

Posted: June 23, 2011 in Songs of Space and Nuclear War
Tags: , , , ,

In the real world, consumers view competition and choice as a good thing.  In the Department of Defense, not so much (except when it suits).

The particular topic is (again) the second F-35 engine which is being offered up a legislative life-line (again), described as ‘at no cost to the taxpayer’ by the GE-Rolls team.  From The Hill:

[Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton] Carter said two provisions added to the 2012 Pentagon authorization bill by the House Armed Services Committee would cause cost increases and delays for the F-35 program.

The first provision would limit the amount of funds the Defense Department could use on the F-35’s primary engine if a number of “performance improvements” are made at the alternate F135 power plant.

That provision would “place limits and conditions on the ability of the Department to continue proper and customary development of the propulsion system for the [F-35] program,” Carter wrote in the June 13 letter to lawmakers. “It would preclude normal and necessary performance improvements in the propulsion system … [and] would significantly delay, disrupt and increase the cost of the [F-35] program.”

The main point of contentions are the ‘no cost to the taxpayer’ assertion and the provisions would allow the Rolls-Royce/General Electric engine team access to government property in order to test the second engine.  Carter says that isn’t realistic and adds that it will  

…cost $480 million in 2012 alone and $2.9 billion to complete it.

While that may be or may not be true (it no doubt depends on the assumptions made and how the ‘costs’ are charged), there is a programming term, now much out of favor and laying in a state of disuse, called cost avoidance. 

What are the chances a second engine could allow the F-35 program to avoid additional costs of $2.9 billion, or even much more in the years ahead?  Secretary Gates staked out a position that favored the F-35 and since then, its performance on cost and schedule have been (I’m generous here) less than stellar.  And space wonks know how well the lack of completion in the merged EELV program (or better yet, FIA) has worked on cost. 

The subcommittee vote (it’s an authorization bill) was 55-5 favoring the second engine proposal and don’t forget the head GE guy, Jeffrey Immelt,  was recently picked to lead the President’s Economic Advisory Panel. 

So is a second engine competition, showing prudent industrial-base diversity (good for taxpayers) or is it waste (good for the government-academic-industrial complex)?  Given that this and many other issues within government are subject to massive slop and imprecision, arcane assumptions, languages, dialects, and interpretations, I’d say it’s probably quite impossible to accurately assess (without making massive assumptions).  In other words, whose numbers are you using? 

But what about the underlying philosophy?  Let’s get real: competition is useful.

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