Monday, January 16, 2006

A very fishy smell

Several readers drew my attention to the piece in The Sunday Telegraph yesterday headed: "One of our engines is missing".

Written by Sylvia Pfeifer, it claims that "last month the Pentagon decided to kill off a second engine" for the troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, an engine which is being built jointly by General Electric, the US conglomerate, and Rolls-Royce, Britain's aero-engine maker. This decision, Pfeifer writes, is threatening to drive a wedge between the Anglo-US alliance on the programme.

This comes on the back of an article written on 8 January by George Trefgarne in the same paper, claiming that “Britain's defence policy” had been “left high and dry”, with the news that the Pentagon was on the verge of cancelling the STOVL variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, that Britain needs for its carriers.

I had considered commenting on the Trefgarne’s story, only to inform readers that it was not true. Perhaps I should have. While the fate of the F-35B was under consideration, the US Marine Corps is fully committed to this project and intends to purchase 850 aircraft. Congress has agreed and has voted enough funds for its continued development.

As regards Pfeifer's story, while not entirely false, it is not giving the whole picture. For sure, the Pentagon has tabled a proposal to abandon the so-called "dual engine programme" – a scheme where the Pentagon had hedged its bets by commissioning engines from two different manufacturers for the one aircraft. The cut is in an attempt to curb the spiralling costs of the whole F-35 programme.

However, according to a much better informed source, Defense Industry Daily, no decision has been made. Furthermore, the decision is not made by the Pentagon but by Congress.

DID says that the JSF engine programme would not be part of the 2006 budget, but part of the 2007 Pentagon proposals, due to be tabled this February. Only if the proposal passes, would the main engine, the Pratt & Whitney F-135 - built by United Technologies (UT) - end up getting the contract for all F-35 aircraft.

Although good news for United Technologies, there is a downside to this option. GE, the partner to the second engine venture, would probably leave the tactical engine business, shrinking the US defence industrial base and leaving UT with a virtual monopoly in this sector. That lack of competition could have a significant effect on future engine costs, which would be very expensive for the taxpayer.

Given these problems, there is a whiff here of tactical "game playing" by the Pentagon, presenting unacceptable choices in order to lever more funds out of the budget from an increasingly unwilling Congress. In other words, this is quite typical pre-budget manoeuvring.

However, both Trefgarne and Pfiefer in their stories refer to the personal intervention by Tony Blair, reporting that he has written personally to Bush, re before Christmas in an attempt to try to persuade the US President to overturn, respectively the decision to scrap F-35B and the second engine.

Neither could have invented these details, but my antenna are twitching. There is something going on here. My suspicion, which is entirely speculative, is that the British government is looking for an excuse to abandon its commitment to the F-35. The Telegraph stories feel like an attempt to soften up sentiment for a decision that has already been pencilled in, giving them a very fishy smell.


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