I hate to be a conspiracy theorist, but my greatest fears about how the defense industry operates are being realized these days by developments surrounding the Joint Strike Fighter's power plant(s).
When you have an airplane that is already wrestling with a flyaway unit cost that is well above program estimates ($80 million versus $65 million), more than a year behind the developmental test schedule for the Navy variant, and increasingly overweight the notion of an "alternative engine" just reeks of - dare I say it - pork.
Aviation Week reports the following: "The House Appropriations defense subcommittee added $480 million to the Joint Strike Fighter research and development account to fund continued work on the alternate engine for the F-35. The Pentagon argued against funding the alternate engine for fear it would reduce the focus and resources necessary for the program of record. Lawmakers also add $200 million to the development account to address 'unfunded information assurance requirements' driven by Defense Dept. policy updates, the committee's report says."
Hmmmm . . . so Pentagon doesn't want the alternative engine but lawmakers are shoving down their throats anyway. How can that be? Don't congressmen get all teary-eyed when they talk about how they support the troops?
Well, let's take a look at how this particular game is played - which happens to be a nice window into how the defense game is too often played overall.
Representative Jean Schmidt, the hawkish Republican from the Ohio district that hosts a General Electric engine manufacturing plant has once again re-inserted the alternative engine funding line into the defense budget. At the same time, Rolls-Royce, the alternative engine co-manufacturer, is calling in a couple of markers on the Hill. First, Rolls-Royce is a British company run by British people who have influence over Parliament whose members want some love because of their support for the Iraq War. Second, Rolls-Royce jumped the gun and built a huge JSF engine manufacturing facility at their plant outside of Indianapolis and the company's lobby arm is executing a full court press to ensure that the American taxpayer pays for it (instead of Rolls-Royce shareholders).
And while - as a former Tomcat guy - I'm not overwhelmed by engines made by Pratt and Whitney, I have to believe that company is capable of making an engine that'll work over the JSF's service life.
The scariest part is all of this is being conducted in plain sight. Will GE and R-R get their way in an environment that is funding a war that costs $12 billion a month? Stay tuned . . .
(Photo: F-136 being tested in STOVL mode at the GE facility in Ohio.)
(Updated July 31 at 0016Z.) CBS News is adding Ted Kennedy to the pork list with a report that suggests he is trying to bring JSF jobs to the GE plant in Lynn, Mass. And check out our favorite editor Christian in this news clip.