The House will likely wait on the process to appoint a new chairman of the Appropriations Defense panel until after a memorial for the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.).
Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) is the frontrunner to take over the powerful committee.
Dicks is the most senior member of the spending panel and is acting as chairman until the official process gets underway in the House. The Democratic Steering Committee would have to vote on the new Defense chairman. The Democratic Caucus would have the final vote.
Murtha died Feb. 8 from complications following gallbladder surgery.
The congressional memorial for Murtha is scheduled for Wednesday at 11 a.m. in Statuary Hall. Murtha was buried in Johnstown, Pa., on Feb. 16 and a large congressional delegation led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) attended the funeral.
As he awaits the official appointment to head the Defense appropriations committee, Dicks will stay away from any heavy-hitting statements on Pentagon weapons programs.
Meanwhile, the battle over the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter backup engine has caught fire among defense authorizers. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) this week hit hard against the Pentagon’s business case supporting the decision to scrap the General Electric-Rolls Royce alternate engine. The primary engine is built by Pratt & Whitney.
“It appears that the department’s approach focuses on near-term costs to the exclusion of what the committee sees as the long-term benefits of this program,” Skelton said in a statement Thursday. “I remain unconvinced that terminating the alternate engine program makes sense.”
Skelton said the Pentagon’s analysis does not consider the risk that a single engine would present to national security because Lockheed Martin’s F-35 will account for 95 percent of the military’s fighter fleet.
“We cannot use near-sighted vision when long-term security is at stake,” Skelton said in the statement.
All eyes will be turned toward the new chairman of the House Defense Appropriations panel on this particular issue. Murtha was a strong backer of the alternate engine, funding it year after year. But Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who also chairs the Defense appropriations subcommittee, did not include funding for it last year, even though he has supported the backup engine in past years. The funds ultimately were restored in the final 2010 bill because the House included them and Murtha did not back down.
This year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he would personally recommend the president veto any defense bills containing funds for the GE-Rolls Royce engine. Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell this week called the alternate engine “a colossal waste of money.”
The overall F-35 program remains front and center in Congress and at the Pentagon.
The Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, Ashton Carter, this week issued an acquisition decision memo for the F-35, basically issuing a specific directive to the secretaries of the Navy and the Air Force on how to go ahead with the restructuring of the massive program. Many of the details of the restructuring were revealed as part of the Pentagon’s rollout of the 2011 budget request.
The F-35 is the Pentagon's most expensive weapons program, and one Gates is banking on. But the program has suffered significant setbacks and is the subject of continuing reviews by the Pentagon to tamp down delays and cost growth.
So far, the Pentagon's review of the F-35 discovered no fundamental technology and manufacturing problems, Carter said in the memo.
Carter also said a recent independent Pentagon assessment done by the so-called Joint Estimating Team found the development phase of the next-generation fighter jet will slip by 13 months, not 30 as initially determined by a previous assessment. Carter also said the cost of the system’s development phase will increase by $2.8 billion. Carter directed the secretaries to budget according to the new estimate. He directed them to extend the development phase by 13 months and move the start of the full production phase to November 2015.
Carter also directed the Air Force and Navy acquisition officials, as well as the program manager for the F-35 program, to withhold $614 million in award fees to Lockheed Martin and revise the contract structure for the development and demonstration phase in such manner that Lockheed is rewarded for “measurable progress.” Gates already announced earlier this month that he was planning to withhold the money from Lockheed.
“I remain convinced that close partnership and clear accountability are required with the JSF contractors,” Carter said in the memo.