Top Defense chief fires back at ‘self-fund’ effort on alternate F-35 engine

Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter fired back at lawmakers who are trying to keep alive a second engine for the F-35 fighter. 

In a letter obtained by The Hill, Carter said two provisions added to the 2012 Pentagon authorization bill by the House Armed Services Committee would cause cost increases and delays for the F-35 program. 

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The first provision would limit the amount of funds the Defense Department could use on the F-35’s primary engine if a number of “performance improvements” are made at the alternate F135 power plant.

That provision would “place limits and conditions on the ability of the Department to continue proper and customary development of the propulsion system for the [F-35] program,” Carter wrote in the June 13 letter to lawmakers. “It would preclude normal and necessary performance improvements in the propulsion system … [and] would significantly delay, disrupt and increase the cost of the [F-35] program.”

A House aide told The Hill proponents of this provision believe strongly that the only way to keep down costs in the F-35’s primary engine program is to keep alive a competing engine.

The Pentagon earlier this year issued a stop-work order for the second F-35 engine after Congress rejected funding for it in a compromise 2011 defense appropriations bill. The military had been trying to end the program for years, saying it is not needed and is too pricey.

The Pentagon’s purchasing boss also took umbrage with a separate portion of the House-approved bill that would allow alternate engine contractors Rolls-Royce and GE access to Pentagon-owned equipment so they could continue testing a second F-35 power plant. The provision states this would be done “at no cost” to the federal government while the companies self-fund the program.

Carter said that scenario is “simply not realistic.”

“A significant amount of the property acquired under the F136 development contract has usefulness and value to the [F-35] program,” the acquisition chief wrote.

Certain DOD-owned items developed for the second engine program could be used on the Pratt & Whitney-led primary power plant effort, he said.

“The F136 ground test engines have potential value to other DOD engine science and technology programs,” Carter wrote.

“Providing this government property to the contractor would definitely have a cost to the government,” Carter told lawmakers. “It is unrealistic for the F136 contractor to use government property in a development program and return it to the government in the same condition.”

Carter noted there are 250,000 such items the provision could cover.

The bottom line, according to Carter, is the provision would “impose significant delays and costs on the [F-35] program because the requirement to store and preserve this property would preclude the property’s use in the [F-35] program.”

Finally, Carter took aim at the Rolls-GE proposal to self-fund the second engine initiative, saying it would cost $480 million in 2012 alone and $2.9 billion to complete it.

“Unless this full expense is covered by the F136 contractor, the ‘self fund’ effort would simply be a means to re-establish government funding for development of the F136 at a later date,” he wrote.

The Pentagon would prefer a provision that states the companies could not recover any monies used for self-funding the engine in possible future F136 contracts, the letter states.

A spokesman for General Electric defended the self-funding plan.

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“Self-funding is aimed at protecting a $3 billion taxpayer investment in a JSF engine that is 80 percent complete. GE-Rolls seeks to run three engines next year at GE’s altitude test facility – the only privately owned facility of its kind,” GE spokesman Rick Kennedy said in an email. 

“The House voted 55-5 in committee to support the self-funding concept because they understand the value of this proposal to the country. Significant Senate leadership also backs the program. We look forward to a successful resolution of this item in the House/Senate conference later this year,” Kennedy said.

The Senate Armed Services Committee-passed version of the bill does not authorize any funds for the second engine effort, nor does it contain any similar provisions to the House version.

The House Appropriations Committee also opted against funding the alternate engine in its 2012 DOD spending measure.