The Obama administration has raised the pressure against Congressional moves to fund the GE/Rolls-Royce F136, the alternate engine for the Joint Strike Fighter. In its latest memo to Congress, the administration curtly dismisses many pro-F136 arguments and concludes: "If the final bill presented to the President would seriously disrupt the F-35 program, the President's senior advisors would recommend a veto."
Now, the Congressional language that we reported here a couple of days ago anticipates this objection, arguing that a two-airplane cut in JSF numbers in FY2010 will not "seriously disrupt" the program in this year. But the administration says that "expenditures on a second engine are unnecessary and impede the progress of the overall JSF program" and might argue that implications in FY2011 and later are more severe.
How did we get to this standoff? In my view, this started as a Washington Monument ploy by the JSF office - an effort to get Congress to add money to the program year-by-year. This was successful through FY2009. In that year, Congress first funded the F136 at the expense of two F-35Cs, but finally (after the JSF program office threatened to thcream and thcream until it was thick) restored those two aircraft.
However, this brilliant plan fell apart when the new administration's Office of Management and Budget took the recommendation literally and tagged the F136 as wasteful and duplicative. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is not going to admit to being wrong in a hurry, and the F-22 battle has further hardened the White House position.
The current leadership of the program hasn't helped by issuing conflicting statements, one day suggesting that the world will end if the F136 is funded and the next complaining that Pratt & Whitney is not acting as if there is a competition going on. But they should not be surprised by P&W's attitude, since the program office appears to be trying to forestall any competition.
Meanwhile, Pratt & Whitney has taken to the streets and enlisted pressure groups on its side. PW can't tell the administration that the F136 issue is tantamount to a test of its manhood, but Citizens Against Government Waste can.
Indeed, CAGW has made this a top issue, launching a new ad campaign this morning. For further reading on CAGW and its ties to politicians and industry, check here, here and here. Not to mention this Washington Post story last year, looking at links between Northrop Grumman and CAGW.
The merits of the case are lost in the noise. The value of engine competition within platforms is a debatable issue. (The A320 family does well with competition and the 737 does well without it, for instance.) My personal view is that it's premature to close the competition in JSF, because engine performance and cost (acquisition and support) are very important, and neither engine has yet demonstrated that it meets the customer's needs in both areas.
The F136 advocates, meanwhile, take some comfort in the fact that the veto threat is not as unambiguous as the one leveled against the F-22. But if the F136 does get eliminated, the historical record will show that politics and fiscal maneuvering defined its fate, as much as any technical or economical issues.