GE vice chairman openly challenges Gates over F-35 fighter jet engine

General Electric's vice chairman on Thursday openly challenged Defense Secretary Robert Gates over statements the defense chief made this week about the performance of a secondary engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

“We have a longstanding record as a reliable and responsible Pentagon contractor, including our work on the F136 [engine],” GE’s vice chairman John Rice wrote to Gates on Thursday. It’s rare that companies offer such an open rebuttal to Pentagon leadership.

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GE, partnered with Rolls Royce, has been fighting to keep receiving funding for an alternate F-35 engine. That funding, which has enjoyed strong congressional support, now comes under a serious veto threat from the president.

Gates opposes the second engine and has thrown his full support toward the primary engine built by Pratt & Whitney. President Barack Obama last month said he would veto any defense bills that contained funding for the GE-Rolls Royce engine.

"We think that the engine does not meet, probably does not meet, the performance standards that are required," Gates told Senate appropriators on Wednesday. “It would be a very serious mistake to believe the president would accept these unneeded programs simply because the authorization or appropriations legislation includes other provisions important to him and to this administration."

In his letter to Gates, GE’s Rice contested the defense chief’s statements. Rice argued that the Pentagon’s own assessments rated the performance of the F136 GE-Rolls Royce engine as “exceptional” seven times and “very good” three times since full-scale development began in 2005.

“As recently as last month, the DoD [Department of Defense] F-35 team provided positive feedback on the technical and financial performance of the GE/Rolls Royce team,” Rice wrote. “This is not our opinion, but the judgment of the managers of the Joint Strike Fighter office.”

Rice also sought to counter Gates’ repeated statements that the government would have to pay another $2.9 billion to complete the development of the GE-Rolls Royce engine. Instead, Rice argued the engine development would necessitate another $1 billion and $800 million to jumpstart early production. 

Rice also argued that his company never had the chance to compete for the F-35 primary engine contract, and to that effect cited a statement by John Roth, the deputy comptroller for program/budget at the office of the undersecretary of defense. 

Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said GE's compentance wasn't being questioned.

"We are not questioning that GE has the ability to ultimately meet our performance requirements," he said.

Morrell stressed that the GE-Rolls Royce engine is well behind in development compared to the primary engine made by Pratt & Whitney and would need more time and "significantly more money" to meet the Pentagon's requirements.

"The F136 is the less mature engine and I do not think that anyone doubts that given time and money, it would meet the Pentagon's requirements," Morrell said.

Morrell also said that there are differing views on whether there was in fact a competition for the F-35 engine. Even though GE offered engines to the prime competitors in the F-35 program, the engine ultimately chosen was Pratt & Whitney's, Morrell said.

Congressional supporters on the defense committees have argued that a backup engine would be useful if there are problems with the primary engine, and that competition between two engine-makers could save money over the life of the program. The defense authorizers also believe that a competitive F-35 engine program would reap non-financial benefits such as increased reliability, improved contractor responsiveness and a more robust fighter engine industrial base.

The House greenlit funding for the development of the GE-Rolls Royce engine its version of the 2011 defense authorization bill, but the Senate Armed Services Committee did not fund it in its version. The fate of the second engine in the defense appropriations bill is uncertain. The chairman of the House Appropriations Defense panel, Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) is not likely to support additional funding for the secondary engine and Senate Appropriations Chairman Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) last year did not include funding because of fear it would be stripped on the Senate floor.

-- This article was updated at 7:28 p.m.