House authorizers defy the administration on second fighter engine

House defense authorizers are ready to fund a secondary engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, defying the White House and Secretary Robert Gates once again.

The House Armed Services Committee sub-panels have started their consideration of the 2011 defense authorization this week and the panels with jurisdiction over Navy and Air Force programs both backed funding for the secondary engine produced by General Electric and Rolls Royce.

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The House is slated to authorize a total of $485 million for the secondary engine, despite repeated threats by Gates that he will recommend President Barack Obama veto any defense bills that back the engine. GE-Rolls Royce has been going head-to-head with Pratt & Whitney, the primary engine producer that for years has lobbied against the second engine.

"We will carefully examine the Committee's recommendations,” said Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell. “We will continue to engage in the process to ensure they understand why this is not in the interest of our military and the taxpayers and, ultimately, Secretary Gate stands ready to recommend a veto should the final legislation contain any money for the extra engine."

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the chairman of the Armed Services Air and Land Forces panel said that having an alternate engine and competition between the engine makers has been part of the F-35 acquisition plan since 1996.

“The committee has believed that competition in the F-35 engine program helps ensure against the operational risk of up to 95 percent of the entire U.S. tactical fighter fleet being grounded due to an engine problem,” Smith said on Thursday.

The F-35 is expected to replace older fighter jets in the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy.

Smith’s panel has decided to shelve 25 percent of the development funds for the F-35 until the Pentagon’s acquisitions chief certifies that all the funds for the development and procurement of the “competitive propulsion system” have been obligated.

A February Pentagon analysis conducted by the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office found that developing the alternate engine wouldn’t cost more than only buying the Pratt & Whitney primary engine. But the Pentagon analysis strongly advised against funding the GE-Rolls-Royce engine.

Lawmakers are not deterred by the veto threats and Gates’ calls for austerity in the defense budget. The top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), on Thursday indicated that he would fight for the inclusion of the alternate engine in the 2011 defense budget.

Meanwhile, the situation in the Senate could be a bit dicer.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that he would continue to support the secondary engine, but he noted he could not predict the outcome in the Senate.

Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), whose state is home to Pratt & Whitney, and John McCain (R-Ariz.) the panel’s top Republican, have successfully fought against funding the second engine.

The GE-Rolls Royce engine will likely become a hotly contested item of negotiation between the House and the Senate.