President Obama says Congress has sunk billions into a military jet engine that the Defense Department says it doesn't want or need, and now the two branches are headed for a showdown over a push by Congressional leaders to spend $3 billion more on the project over the next six years.
"The Bush administration opposed this engine. The Obama administration opposes it. We have recommended for several years now against funding this engine, considering it a waste of money," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters this week. "To argue that we should add another $3 billion in what we regard as waste … frankly, I don't track the logic."
At issue is the engine for the aircraft known as the Joint Strike Fighter, an all-purpose military jet that is expected to become the backbone of American air supremacy for a generation. The fighter already has an engine – built by Pratt & Whitney and in use as the jet is being tested. Some members of Congress want to pay General Electric and Rolls-Royce to develop a second one. ABC News chief investigative reporter Brian Ross will have more on the allegations of wasteful spending tonight in a report on World News with Diane Sawyer.
"It started off with an earmark that was placed into a defense bill years ago," said Laura Peterson, who has been tracking the project for the nonpartisan watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
The money involved is not insubstantial. By some estimates, Congress has paid $3 billion to GE and Rolls-Royce since first setting aside money for a second engine in the mid-1990s, and it will take close to $3 billion more to have the engines tested, proven and in full production.
And top military brass say they don't want or need it. One navy admiral told reporters it made no sense to try and carry spare parts two separate engines on an aircraft carrier. "Space is at a premium," Adm. Gary Roughead said.
So why is Congress pushing it?
Supporters of the second engine say that with a project of this scale, bringing in a second contractor to build an alternate engine for the fighter jet could actually wind up saving money in the long term. Having two companies compete to put their engines in the plane creates competition, and that forces both contractors to work faster and cheaper, said Rep. Adam Smith, D.-Wash., chairman of the key House Armed Services Committee subcommittee that has reviewed the contract.
Smith pointed out that an independent review by the Government Accountability Office found that over the life of the project, competition could cut the cost of the engine by more than 20 percent – and is similar to an approach used successfully in the development of the F-16 a generation ago.
"This is a policy call, and the policy call is competition works," Smith said.
Analysts with the House Armed Services Committee also point out that there could be a security benefit from having a second contractor. If the Pratt & Whitney engine proves unreliable, the military could find itself reliant on a single, critical jet fighter that it can't get off the ground. Having a second engine is "critical to the operational security of our fighter fleet, not to mention a very worthwhile insurance policy for future repairs that may be necessary when we're working off just one engine," said Jennifer Kohl, the committee's spokeswoman, in an email to ABC News.