Tension rises over fighter engine

Senior lawmakers on Tuesday questioned the Pentagon’s decision to oppose funding a backup engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who recently took over the chairmanship of the House Armed Services Air and Land subcommittee, said he is “puzzled” about the Pentagon not requesting funding for the alternate engine made by General Electric and Rolls-Royce. Pratt & Whitney is the primary contractor for the F-35 engine.


Additionally, Smith said that he is “really puzzled” over Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s threat to recommend that the president veto the defense bills this year if they contain funds for the alternate engine.

 Previous Air and Land Chairman Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) was one of the strongest supporters of the alternate engine and was instrumental in advocating for authorizing funding for the GE and Rolls-Royce engine. Abercrombie retired from Congress on Tuesday to run for governor of Hawaii.

 Now Smith has begun prodding the Pentagon for its rationale behind opposing the production of the alternate engine, and quizzed Air Force leaders on Tuesday as to why they are “so adamantly opposed” to the alternate engine after the Pentagon for almost a decade supported its development, and only started opposing it over the last several years.

 Smith is not alone. House Armed Service Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) expressed concern with the Pentagon’s decision once more not to request funds for the GE-Rolls-Royce engine.

 “We have long funded the development of an alternate engine for the Joint Strike Fighter as an insurance policy for our national security. Twenty-five years from now, the F-35 will comprise 95 percent of all U.S. fighter aircraft,” Skelton said in his opening statement.

 “It seems to me, then, that relying simply on one engine means accepting a potential single source of failure. The secretary of Defense promised us, starting on Feb. 1, that he would provide us the analysis on which this year’s decision was made. We have still not received this analysis and remain deeply concerned about receiving it quickly.”

 Another stalwart supporter of the alternate engine, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), earlier this month expressed his opposition to the Pentagon’s decision to scrap funding for the engine.

 “I’m disappointed, Secretary Gates, that you have announced that you will recommend a veto if the defense bills include funding for the F-35 alternate engine,” Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said during a hearing after the Pentagon rolled out its budget request.

 Both Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz vigorously defended the decision to go with only the Pratt & Whitney engine. Schwartz called it a “manageable risk” to go with the primary engine. He pointed out that the F-22 Raptor fighter jets also rely on one engine.

 The Pentagon also has some strong backing in the Senate for its decision to go with the primary engine, particularly from the Connecticut delegation (Pratt & Whitney is based in that state). Last year, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) received backing from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), to strike funding for the alternate engine in the 2010 defense authorization bill. Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) also signed on as co-sponsors.

 Ultimately, GE-Rolls-Royce and the congressional supporters of the alternate engine scored a major victory in the 2010 defense bills by securing $465 million for the engine. This year, once again they are readying for another vicious fight.

 Critics of the Pentagon’s decision argue that having a single engine producer for the entire fleet could be too risky and make the fighters less reliable. Leading defense authorizers and appropriators in the Senate and House, including the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) and Levin, have made the case over the years for granting funds to makers of both engines in an effort to save money down the line.

The “engine wars” started after several fiascos with the F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, which relied on one engine. As a consequence, Congress started an alternative fighter-engine program that provided funding for rival companies to produce engines for the same planes. One company receives a certain percentage of the engine contract, the other the rest.