Orbital Matters

Saturn Smith
MAY 26, 2010 1:12PM

Care about Don't Ask, Don't Tell? Care about the F-35

Rate: 9 Flag

Spencer Ackerman brings up a very good point about the upcoming 2011 Defense Authorization bill. The main star wasn't supposed to be Don't Ask, Don't Tell, because Defense Secretary Robert Gates had a bigger plan. He's been planning a showdown with Congress and some of the big military contractors, using the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

F-35.jpgOK, he wasn't going to get in an F-35 and shoot them down, though he's probably felt like it. The F-35 is a $250,000,000 plane that currently comes with a Pratt & Whitney F135 engine. The Department of Defense plans to buy nearly 2,500 of these planes over the next 25 years, making them the go-to jet for all branches of the military. They come in several variations already: the standard plane, the one that can take off and land like a helicopter, and the one that's designed to land and take off from air craft carriers. All of these functions are supported by the F135 engine.

Still, at some point someone decided it would be a good idea to build the F-35 another engine. The F136 is being built by General Electric and Rolls Royce as an alternative to the F135. Yes, just like Mr. Potato Head, you can swap out the parts to create exactly the killing machine you want!

The problem is that someone realized that this was probably a stupid thing to do. That someone was (eventually) Bob Gates. After the Pratt & Whitney engine alone had enormous cost overruns (which led to Gates withholding hundreds of millions in payments to Lockheed Martin), Gates said, very clearly, a second engine isn't going to save us money or men. We don't need it. Thanks but no thanks.

Then Congress said, BUT! GE gives us MONEY! Also, in the past, relying on a single engine for a plane has ended up being kind of a monetary disaster for the government, when the single engine design ends up taking too long/costing too much. So the appropriation for the F136 went back into the budget, to the tune of nearly $500 million.

Gates was very clear in his response: The F135 is doing just fine. "I have strongly recommended a presidential veto if either program is included in next year’s defense budget legislation," he said in an earlier speech, and he's since said he still means that.

Think back -- can anyone remember the last time that the head of the Pentagon said, No thanks, we have enough money? Bumperstickers about bake sales for bombers aside, it's good to see someone acknowledging the idea that military spending is out of control. That it's the Secretary of Defense who's doing it is even better.

Yet the man is being ignored -- no, he's being given the finger by Congress. Why? Do they think he's wrong about the F-35? No. They probably don't care one way or the other about the functionality of the alternative engine for the Joint Strike Fighter. At best, what they care about are the factories where those engines would be built, and the constituents who would work in those factories. At worst, they care about the defense contractors who would make those engines and the campaign contributions they've been happily offering for all of these years.

This is a fight that needs to be won by the DOD and the White House -- a fight that they lost last year. The battle to reduce costs at the Pentagon can be tied directly to saving lives on the battlefield -- because, as Gates points out, every time an expensive piece of equipment takes up more than its share of the budget, other pieces of hardware are cut. "Without exercising real diligence, if nature takes its course, major weapons programs will devolve into pursuing the limits of what technology will bear without regard to cost or what a real world enemy can do – a process that over the past two decades has led to $20 million howitzers, $2 billion bombers, and 3 to 6 billion dollar destroyers," Gates said in that same speech. That's not an effective military -- that's a country with too many high-tech toys.

I think most of us would agree with Gates, who says that kind of behavior isn't sustainable. I'd be glad to see Obama veto the bill over that kind of military-industrial complex-serving inclusion in the defense bill -- if it weren't for one thing.

The Defense bill that's going through this week now, finally, has the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell attached. Suddenly, standing on the principle of reducing Pentagon over-spending is a lot harder to do, because it could lead to losing the DADT battle.

Is that a real threat? I don't know. The White House has struck some kind of deal with Congress to make sure that DADT gets repealed on this trip through. Details are a little sketchy about whether that repeal would be included if the bill had to go through a second round. I certainly hope it would be included, but -- is it possible that members of Congress would use a second bite at the Defense Spending apple to get what they really want -- more funding for fighters, and less care for inequality in the Armed Services?

The White House support for this repeal -- this imperfect, delayed, temporary fix -- is tepid at best. They may be more willing to fight for killing the F-35 than for killing Don't Ask, Don't Tell. So if there ends up being a showdown between the White House and Congress over the F-35 engine, who knows where the other engine -- that of hope for those who must lie every single day to serve their country -- will end up.

Me? I'm for the veto. I think this DADT fix is needed, but it isn't the permanent, bold declaration of support that's really needed to fix the deplorable situation of gays serving in the military. Dealing with the military-industrial complex is apparently his chosen fight, anyway, instead of fighting discrimination.

I guess not everyone can be Dwight Eisenhower.

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Another brilliant column.
Thanks, Gordon, that's very kind.
You always do your homework, Saturn. Thanks for being on top of this issue.
Thanks, Kathy. I did more homework for this than one post could contain, even, so the rest of it is up on my website.
Good Lord!! $250 million for 1 plane and they want 100 each year!! That's $25 BILLION just for the one kind of jet!

Slapping the DADT is putting lipstick on the PORK bellied pig.

I'm all for job creation but not when it helps to cripple our economy further.
In fact GE is advertising about their engine in much the same way the drug companies: go over the heads of physicians to the consumer. So the whores in Congress are getting pressured by their pimps. Sorry to be politically correct, elected representatives are being pressured by lobbyists.
The DoD has become so bloated (50% of world-wide arms spending) that a significant reduction would probably send the country on a downward spiral into a depression far worse than what we have already witnessed these last two years. Defense spending has really become little more than an endless employment stimulus program. Democrats and Republicans alike fear what would happen in their districts if the money valve were shut off. And the Limbaugh's and Hannity's are waiting in the wings to demagogue any sensible reduction.

Once society falls prey to Eisenhower's nightmare, it becomes almost impossible to extricate itself. The veto of which you write is a good thing, but is it far too little way too late?
It's too little, but I don't think it's ever too late. Cuts have to start somewhere, unless we're giving up on reducing spending forever.
Well, you are of course correct about that. But it is just a tiny drop in the bucket. Hey, I've got an idea: What if all that excessive DoD spending was put to use in fixing our decaying infrastructure, and equipping our schools with the technology they need, and providing scholarships to enable more young adults to receive a higher education? Just dreamin'...