House panel OKs alternative fighter engine

President Obama may have singled out a General Electric-Rolls Royce engine for the next-generation fighter jet as wasteful, but House defense authorizers will have none of that.

The House Armed Services Air and Land Forces Subcommittee on Friday agreed to authorize $603 million for the production of an alternative engine for the Joint Strike Fighter F-35.

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The GE-Rolls Royce venture is going head to head with engine maker Pratt & Whitney, which is building the primary engine and has been eying to be the sole contractor for the new fighter jet.  

When Obama announced his budget request for 2010 in early May, he singled out the alternative engine contract as an unnecessary defense program that “does nothing to keep us safe.”

But House defense authorizers disagree.

“If everything proceeds as planned for the Joint Strike Fighter program, the F-35 will compose the vast majority of the fighter force for the Navy, Marine Corps and the Air Force 20 years from now,” said Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), the chairman of the Air and Land Forces panel. “This issue is not about Contractor A or Contractor B. The issue is that we do not believe that it is prudent for up to 80 to 90 percent of the fighter fleet to be dependent on a single engine type, provided by one manufacturer.”

To ensure that the Pentagon continues funding the second F-35 engine, lawmakers are prohibiting the military from spending more than 75 percent of the development funds for the entire F-35 program until officials certify that all funds for development and production of the second engine have been obligated. Pentagon officials also have to submit a 30-year aircraft-building plan. That plan was supposed to be submitted with the 2010 budget request, but the Pentagon didn’t do so.

House defense authorizers also are slashing two F-35s from the budget request: one slated for the Air Force and one for the Marine Corps. That brings down the overall Pentagon F-35 buy to 28.

The F-35 is a multi-service and multi-national program with a price tag of approximately $260 billion.

“Overall, 28 aircraft is still twice the number of aircraft approved last year,” Abercrombie said.

The concept for a second F-35 engine has had broad support in Congress and the committees with jurisdiction over the defense budget. And so far, lawmakers have been able to restore funding for the development of the second engine in the previous three budgets.

Meanwhile, to address a growing Navy and Marine strike fighter aircraft shortfall, lawmakers on Friday authorized the Navy to enter a new multi-year contract with Boeing for the F/A-18 Super Hornets. Current projections show a shortfall of about 240 fighter aircraft until the F-35 becomes operational.

Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), the ranking member of the Seapower and Expeditionary Forces Subcommittee, is a strong supporter of Boeing’s Super Hornets and included an amendment for the multi-year authorization as his panel marked up the bill on Friday.

Congress is just at the beginning of its defense budget approval process. The full House Armed Services panel is marking up the 2010 defense authorization bill on Tuesday, while the Senate committee is starting its process on June 24.