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Competitiveness should rule in Joint Strike Fighter acquisitions

I applaud those in Congress who are championing the case for competition on the Joint Strike Fighter. It’s the poster child for acquisition reform if there ever was one.

The government shouldn’t pick winners and losers when it comes to military contractors; the marketplace should. If we really want to avoid more of the same — more cost overruns — we need to be true to the principles of acquisition reform.

Congress, for its part, has passed a series of laws to control cost overruns. The most recent, the 2009 Weapons Acquisition Reform Act, signed into law by President Obama, requires the Pentagon to use competition between military contractors to keep costs in line. History shows that competition forces contractors to behave better by offering lower prices, providing better service, building better equipment and innovating.

But now the Pentagon wants to kill competition on one of the biggest programs we’ve ever seen: The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), a program that’s already years late, more than 50 percent over budget and under formidable criticism from Congress. Luke Air Force base is in contention to host the training facility for the JSF.

For 15 years, Congress has funded two competing engines for the aircraft: A Pratt & Whitney engine that is years late and projected to be $2.5 billion over budget, and one from GE and Rolls Royce that’s on time, very close to its budget and will be ready to fly in 2011.

According to the Government Accountability Office, competing engines on a previous fighter, the
F-16, saved taxpayers 20 percent. That amounts to $20 billion on the JSF, which more than pays for development costs on the GE-Rolls Royce engine. The alternative is a $100 billion, 30-year, single-bid monopoly for Pratt & Whitney. That would really fly in the face of acquisition reform — and in the face of common sense.

Just as important, there are clear national security implications. When completed, the JSF will account for 95 percent of our fighter fleet. We would have to ground our entire fighter force if we have to recall one engine in a single-engine program. Having two interoperable engines gives us air cover in the event we have to recall one of the engines.

Then there’s the argument for American industrial competitiveness. Eight foreign allies have signed up to buy the Joint Strike Fighter, but many are worried about the program’s cost overruns. We know from the F-16 that once competitive engines were introduced and prices came down, allies became encouraged to buy more aircraft. Competition leads to more exports.

For the sake of national security, saved tax dollars and increased exports, acquisition reform principles need to be followed and competition must be allowed to exist.

— Sen. John Nelson is a Republican from Litchfield Park

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