The Engine No One Wants — Except Congress

The supersonic F-35 Lightning II is the military's next-generation strike fighter. It flies so fast that the speed is classified.

Pratt & Whitney has the government contract to make the jet's high-performance engine. But your tax dollars are also paying for GE to develop a spare engine — and it has cost you $1.6 billion so far.

The idea is that if GE and Pratt & Whitney compete, they'll build better engines that cost less and end up saving money. But here's where it really gets interesting: The military doesn't want the alternate engine. The Air Force and two independent panels have concluded it's "not necessary and not affordable" and that the supposed savings from competition "will never be achieved."

So why did Sen. Ted Kennedy personally earmark $100 million tax dollars for the project this year alone? He wouldn't agree to an interview, but part of the answer has to do with where it could be built: at GE's Massachusetts plant in Kennedy's home state — where it would bring jobs.

Kennedy is not the only one who wants to spend your tax money on the project. So does Congresswoman Jean Schmidt.

"The military says we don't want it. It's not going to save money in the long run. Why should taxpayers fund it?," asks CBS News Capitol Hill correspondent Sharyl Attkisson.

"History shows competition works; it drives down price, spurs innovation, builds a better product and saves money in the long term," says Rep. Schmidt, R-Ohio.

It doesn't hurt that the competing engine could also bring jobs to the GE plant in Schmidt's home state of Ohio.

Meantime, the military has been trying to kill the project altogether, saying the tax dollars would be better spent for force protection and IED-resistant vehicles.

"For two years in a row, the Air Force has asked Congress to take funding away from the program so they can devote it to other more urgent needs," says military analyst Christian Lowe of Military.com. "And every year Congress has come back and said 'Nope. You're going to do this alternate engine program.'"

The second engine is just one of many expensive add-ons to the defense budget.

Just this year, senators on the Armed Services Committee tacked on 309 extra projects worth $5.6 billion tax dollars — much of it for hometown contracts.

That includes the backup engine for the supersonic Lightning II, which remains on congressional life support — against the Air Force's own best advice.
  • Michelle Singer

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