Opinion Columns & Blogs

Competition needed in jet engine

The principle of competition is central to life in America. It underlies sports, business, even academia, and its benefits are well-understood. Unfortunately, the one place where competition could matter the most is the area in which competition may soon disappear, if the federal government has its way. That place is on the front lines of war.

Typically, when the Defense Department decides that it wants to build or purchase a new piece of equipment, it asks multiple vendors to engage in a competition for the project. Often, instead of selecting just one partner to produce the equipment, it will select two. The reason is simple: Having two companies competing head-to-head spurs progress. Instead of one company resting on its laurels knowing a contract is in the bag, two are striving each day to build a better product at a better price.

The positive results are indisputable, and history has affirmed it. Our military men and women receive far better equipment, and taxpayers get a better deal.

Until now, this has been the case with the engine for the Joint Strike Fighter — the fighter jet to be used by nearly every branch of our military and by our allies. But some in Washington, D.C., want to put an end to this competition before the plane gets into full production — despite clear concern from Congress, the Government Accountability Office and the Pentagon's own independent review panel, which strongly recommended competition in weapons acquisition.

Instead of selecting two manufacturers to produce the engine for the next generation fighter jet, the Pentagon wants to give one manufacturer a $100 billion monopoly as part of the largest Pentagon spending program ever. Taxpayers should not be asked to bear this fiscal imprudence — not when the GAO estimates that competition would improve our preparedness and save taxpayers $20 billion over the life of the program.

When it comes to the detrimental impact monopolies have on military equipment quality, history is our guide. As a command pilot, I flew F-15s in the late '70s before the dual-sourced supplier competition was introduced. The effect was disastrous. Our planes were continually grounded due to engine malfunctions, and there was no alternative engine to turn to. We were not prepared.

Fortunately, we learned from that experience and started competition between two engine makers that led to improved readiness, lower costs and greater safety that applied to our full fleets of F-15s and F-16s. We shouldn't ignore the hard lessons we learned then.

I know that America has the best military and the best military strategists in the world — I've seen it firsthand. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in particular, has done a fine job, but in this case I hope he will reconsider his opposition to this important competition. His Eagle Scout days in Wichita taught him to "always be prepared." Competition prepares the battlefield, and it is then on the battlefield where competition matters most.