The military's F-35 program has been marred by excessive spending, delay, and a false assumption that two engine contractors are better than one
Official U.S. Navy Imagery/Flickr
It is by now a cliché that the defense budget must be cut. Some of this cutting will be from canceling programs, but a decent of the expected defense cuts can actually come from cost savings. One way some defense hawks have suggested for saving money is introducing competition through redundant parts or systems.
By far the most acrimonious debate over redundancy and competition is the F-35 alternate engine (which I wrote about two months ago for The Atlantic). Part of the push for a second engine -- made jointly by congressional Republicans and an industry team lead by GE -- is that competition for the engine will lower costs. As my colleague August Cole and I explained in our analysis, the cost-savings argument rests on some shaky assumptions, might not actually reduce overall program cost, and rely on the Defense Department and US Air Force behaving like normal customers in a commercial market (which they are not).
But the other side to the argument for the alternate F-35 engine is one of redundancy. One insider to the push for an extra engine (who could not be named because of the sensitivity of the issue) had a very interesting perspective: because of what the F-35 represents, design flaws and manufacturing problems will actually have a much bigger effect on the overall fighter force than they used to. The F-35 is meant to replace the aging F-15 fleet, but also the F/A-18 fleet, the AV-8B Harrier jumpjets, and the F-16. In fifteen years, the U.S. Air Force attack fleet will basically be three aircraft: about 175 F-22s, a few hundred F-35s, and some unspecified Next Generation Bomber. That makes problems with the F-35 much more important than if they only affected a relatively small number of aircraft compared to the overall fleet.