The full-page ads in The Washington Post seem so reasonable. The military contractor Pratt & Whitney has been arguing that America doesn't need to spend $485 million to develop a second engine for the F-35 jet fighter. It's a compelling argument. We're in a serious economic crisis, so why on earth would we build another jet engine when the first one is sufficient?
Pratt & Whitney has supporters in high places. Pentagon Chief Robert Gates doesn't want the second engine, which would be built by General Electric and Rolls Royce, and neither does his Air Force. President Obama, too, has come out against the unnecessary spending.
Pratt & Whitney isn't spending hundreds of thousands of advertising dollars simply out of a spirit of fiscal rectitude. They're the builders of the original F-35 engine, and they don't want the competition muscling into their territory. Still, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is already a terrible boondoggle — Lockheed Martin recently confessed that the per-plane cost has nearly doubled since the initial estimate — so adding a second engine would be nonsense on stilts.
And yet, last week the House decided to risk a presidential veto by restoring funding for the second engine.
Yes, you read that correctly. The president and the Air Force don't want the bloody thing. But Congress, which treats every weapon system like an endangered species, insists on keeping this vestigial program alive. The engine represents jobs, and U.S. politicians have a difficult time of saying no to jobs at the moment. Even Barney Frank (D-MA), who has taken the most courageous stand against military spending by calling for a 25 percent reduction in the Pentagon budget, voted in favor of the back-up engine because it meant jobs at the GE plant in his state.
If GE and Rolls Royce proposed to paint the F-35 pink with green polka dots, Congress would probably stand up and cheer the effort, as long as the initiative promised to employ enough people.
This engine vote comes at a particularly sad time. This Memorial Day weekend, the United States officially passed the trillion-dollar mark in spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We exceeded the cost of the Vietnam War several years ago, and now we're heading for the record of most expensive conflict of all time.
The trillion-dollar war bill and the half-billion-dollar engine are connected in a way that goes beyond their status as budget items.