Dual Production Incentive for Quality

Posted May 20, 2007 at 11:00pm

Corporate America is fond of reminding Congress that one of the great benefits of a free market system is competition; that competition works to the advantage of the consumer, except of course when competition threatens the comfort level of a company with a sole-source government contract.

In the 2008 National Defense Authorization bill, the House Armed Services subcommittee on air and land forces included language to allow a second manufacturing source for engines that power the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The full Armed Services Committee approved the language. The committee actually inserted such language into previous Defense bills, but the Pentagon chose to ignore it. This year, we insisted.

In 2006, Congress had mandated that the Secretary of Defense Cost Analysis Improvement Group, a federally funded research and development center, and the Comptroller General conduct detailed cost analyses of the JSF engine program. The three separate studies were not unanimous about specific financial gain from competing engine development, but in reviewing the research, the Armed Services Committee found other distinct benefits from the increased focus on product quality and performance that usually accompanies competition: better overall engine performance, improved contractor responsiveness, increased engine reliability, improved operational readiness and an important consideration much overlooked in the past four years: a stronger industrial base.

Among the Bush administration’s seminal failures in the lead-up and conduct of the Iraq War has been its absolute failure to mobilize our nation’s industrial base to support a $10-billion-a-month war now in its fifth year. As a result, we have a limited ability to meet the needs of our troops in combat.

How long did it take to ramp up production of adequate body armor, up-armored Humvees and armor kits for the vehicles? When the Army and Marine Corps told us they needed more than 7,000 Mine Resistant Armored Protected vehicles to literally save lives in Iraq, the best we could promise them was 400 by the end of the year.

Competitive development and production on major defense contracts have saved taxpayers millions in past years. The “great engine war” of the 1980s pitted two major military equipment manufacturers, General Electric and Pratt & Whitney, in a fierce fight to power the F-15 and F-16 airframes. That competition has been credited with saving us about $2 billion.

Today, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is billed as the next generation aircraft, and this time, Pratt & Whitney was selected as the lead engine manufacturer. But General Electric/ Rolls Royce developed an alternative to Pratt & Whitney’s engine. Pratt & Whitney doesn’t see the need for the second engine. The company feels the issues leading to the 1980s procurement competition for fighter aircraft engines have been resolved, and it points out that its engine is on budget and on schedule. So why should GE/Rolls Royce continue to build an alternate?

The Department of Defense needs to keep contractors on budget and schedule. I believe continuing to fund the alternate engine program provides incentive for both companies to continue focusing on producing the best quality product in the most efficient manner or risk losing business.

Ultimately, financial cost aside, the focus on a better quality product also saves lives. A substandard engine can lead to failure and the loss of aircraft and personnel. The business of building military equipment is to provide our military with the tools to fight efficiently and effectively. Sending them into battle with anything less than the best equipment in the world is foolhardy and dangerous.

The National Defense Authorization Act is not an entitlement bill. The only people who are owed anything are the men and women of our armed forces who rely on Congressional oversight to ensure their needs are addressed. It is not about the money — it is about the troops on the ground in Iraq, flying overhead providing surveillance, reconnaissance and protection and manning the watch at sea. If continuing to fund the competitive engine program ensures the highest quality product makes it on to our nation’s next generation fighter, the Joint Strike Fighter, I fully support it.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) is chairman of the Armed Services subcommittee on air and land forces.