Saving a penny today... wasting thousands tomorrow ...

For more than two years now, in the face of the nation’s deepest recession since the Great Depression, many American families have had to make difficult choices about what they can and cannot afford.  In Washington, our federal government would do well to face the same tough question: which expenses can and should be cut from an untenable budget and which are so vital that they’re worth the continued investment?

There is no doubt that Congress and the Obama administration must make significant cuts to our federal budget — cuts that reduce federal spending now and in the future. Cuts that save a buck today and cost 100 bucks tomorrow won’t do the trick.

As war rages on in Afghanistan and conflict is far from resolved in Iraq, some in Washington are considering doing away with the GE/Rolls-Royce engine for the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). In fact, unless Congress acts—and soon—funding for the engine will expire this month. And even if Congress is able to preserve the engine’s funding, it will be put on a collision course with President Obama who has threatened to veto any bill that supports the engine.

To say this would be short-sighted is an understatement. The JSF is the largest procurement in Pentagon history, and it will ultimately make up 90 percent of our fighter fleet. Cutting the GE/Rolls-Royce engine program would have a significant impact on the preparedness of our military and the quality of the JSFs our Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and allies’ armed forces operate. This isn’t just conjecture; this is based on the firsthand experiences of pilots who operated F-15s and F-16s in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

Back then, the airmen relied on a single engine manufacturer for all of their aircraft. Whenever a problem with the engine occurred—which unfortunately happened with some regularity—commanders were forced to ground large portions of their fleet while they awaited spare engine parts. Eventually the problem became so troubling that the government hired a second contractor to build a competitive engine for the aircraft. Known as “the Great Engine War,” this competition improved the readiness of the military substantially and enhanced the quality of both engines. The benefits were so extraordinary that competition has since been written into law.

The engine competition is clearly good for the military. But in the current economic state, it’s also important for Washington to carefully assess the economic effects of each defense program, prioritizing programs that benefit both troops and taxpayers. The GE/Rolls-Royce engine program fits the bill.

Competition is simply the very best cost control mechanism. Eliminating the engine competition would grant a $100 billion sole-source monopoly to one contractor, Pratt & Whitney (P&W), for the next 30 years. On the other hand, the independent Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates that a head-to-head competition between the GE/Rolls-Royce team and P&W would save taxpayers up to $20 billion over the life of the program—more than enough to cover the initial investment.

In the coming months, as Congress decides where to make cuts to our nation’s growing expenses, they must do so carefully. Basing decisions solely on short-term budget goals can have serious long-term consequences. Programs that simultaneously enhance our national security and ultimately save taxpayer dollars must be preserved.

George Landrith is the president of Frontiers of Freedom, a conservative think tank. He has also been an adjunct professor at George Mason’s School of Law.