Murphy's Law: Two Is Good For You

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September 4, 2007: Inter-service rivalry spawned jokes about foreign powers being the opposition and other services being the enemy. Whoever cooked up those jokes obviously missed the rivalries between various defense contractors, which make inter-service rivalry seem tame. The media war over the Air Force's CSAR-X (rescue helicopter) program is a classic example, but another is the fight between GE and Pratt and Whitney over whether the F-35 will rely on just one company's engine, or if both companies will split the pot. Both companies are using media support, and friendly politicians to make their points.

Splitting the market has happened before. The F-16C was a plane that had some variants using a GE engine, and others using a Pratt and Whitney (the same engine used by F-15s). There was an advantage to that. Some F-16s, in units like the 366th Wing, were co-located with F-15s. Since they used the same engine, logistics at the base, and on deployment, were much simpler to deal with. At the same time, those that used the GE engine could still fly if the planes with Pratt and Whitney had to be grounded due to an engine issue.

However, this led to another problem. A unit could really only have F-16s with one engine or another. Otherwise, the chances of a mix-up could be too great. The F-16 has been around for a long time - and it will be around for a long time. A lot of companies and contractors did well because the F-16 did well.

Naturally, companies want to be in on the next big thing - that being the F-35. In this case, the F-35's engine is based on the Pratt and Whitney F119, used on the F-22. GE's engine, the F136 is based on the F120, which failed to win the contract to power the F-22. GE teamed with Rolls Royce, who made the Pegasus engine that is used on the AV-8B Harrier.

Again, the GE's advantages would be to ensure that at least some of the F-35 force could still fight if there is a problem that grounded those F-35s powered by Pratt and Whitney. However, there is still the expense of setting up a second logistical chain - about $1.8 billion. To put it into perspective, that is enough to buy another 18 F-22s in addition to those in the current program. This would also make deployments to combat areas more complicated - not impossible, but more complicated. This gives Murphy's Law much room to work with. In reality, when two suppliers are involved, prices tend to come down, and more than cover the additional costs of producing two engines.

If the DOD had its way, the F-136 would be cancelled. That said, the politicians will be weighing in. After all, there are jobs, profit margins, and even diplomatic considerations at stake. And in this case, there are some good arguments to be made for the alternative decision. Thus, this is one media/PR war that will continue. - Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)

 


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