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Stealth Battle Underway for America’s Aerospace Defense Future

It wasn’t a dry lakebed at Edwards Air Force Base, California; it was one of the beaches that make up the famed “Grand Strand” of South Carolina.

It wasn’t a test flight; it was the “real deal.”

On Saturday, Feb. 4, an F-22 Raptor from Langley Air Force Base, Virginia shot down a Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon six miles off the Atlantic Coast.

Subsequent U.S. military shoot-downs of other balloons over Canada and the Great Lakes sparked speculation about Chinese intentions, the identity of the other targets, and even UFOs.

Yet another type of “UFO” poses a danger to American policymakers: unrealized factual obscurities.

It’s a standard complaint on Capitol Hill, and certainly something I heard during my 12 years serving in the House. Most often, it was explained this way: “In Washington, the ‘urgent’ overtakes the ‘important.’”

So, with a war raging between Russia and Ukraine—not to mention a potential military confrontation between China and Taiwan—a key debate about the future of America’s aerospace defense mostly “flies under the radar.”

It concerns the continuing trend of consolidation of contractors who provide for our common defense in the skies.

A Defense Department report issued last year provides the “view from 35,000 feet.” “Since the 1990s, the defense sector has consolidated substantially, transitioning from 51 to 5 aerospace and defense contractors. As a result, the DoD is increasingly reliant on a small number of contractors for critical defense capabilities.”

A new consolidation threat lingering around the Potomac has a direct impact on our military’s largest program— the F-35 fighter jet.

A final decision from Congress is expected soon over the future of its high-tech propulsion system. Will the U.S. upgrade and update the existing engine, known as the F135, or replace it with an entirely new propulsion system?

After many years of deliberation and wildly expensive research, the U.S. Air Force finally decided this month to stick with an upgraded version of the F135. Congress should support this wise decision and not force our military to spend an estimated $6 billion more of taxpayer dollars on systems it doesn’t want or need.

Some industry insiders and voices in Congress have been pushing for years to develop a brand new proposed engine for the F-35, called the Adaptive Engine Transition Program (AETP). They say it would lead to more competition and thus more innovation—with the current engine producer Pratt & Whitney competing with General Electric for the contract.

But a closer look reveals that the scenario described above would instead dramatically alter the balance of industrial power between America’s two major aircraft engine manufacturers and become a milestone en route to an eventual monopoly.

GE Aviation is already the larger company globally, with over 26,000 military engines in use; Pratt & Whitney supplies just over 7,000. Annual reports from each corporation supply their annual sales figures: GE Aviation at roughly $30 billion, P&W at $20 billion.

But a rough parity between the two contractors exists within the American fighter jet community. GE Aviation manufactures the vast majority of USAF F-16 engines and also powers the F-18s. For its part, Pratt & Whitney makes engines for the F-15s, F-22s, and F-35s.

If GE Aviation were to assume engine manufacturing for F-35s, it would deal a harmful blow to the U.S. industrial base, dwarfing an already smaller P&W, the only other major American company that remains in that realm. Congress should not intervene and force that to happen.

From my decade-long perch on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, I witnessed first-hand the economic advantages our nation enjoys from vigorous competition. The innovations encouraged and the savings realized ring true in the sales and performance of virtually every product—from toy airplanes to fighter jet engines.

Those ten years of service also left me with a distinct sense of stewardship when it comes to “tax dollars”—more accurately regarded as money belonging to the American people. The U.S. Air Force is trying to save taxpayer money with their latest decision on the F-35s and we should support such moves.

Our national survival—both economically and militarily—can be ensured by ongoing competition among defense contractors—rather than continued consolidation, hiding under the cloak of “competition.”

Simply stated, making those needed fighter jet engines better, faster, and cheaper—will keep us all safer.