Pentagon pitches in as battle over F-35 engine heads for debate in the House

Congressional opponents of a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) on Wednesday escalated their efforts to scrap it, and received help from the Pentagon’s top officials. 


The House is poised for a Thursday debate on whether to keep funding two engines for the Pentagon’s largest and most expensive program.

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Connecticut-based Pratt & Whitney builds the F-35’s primary engine, while the team of General Electric and Rolls-Royce is developing a secondary engine the Pentagon no longer wants. 


Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter on Wednesday briefed congressional staff on the Defense Department’s arguments, while Defense Secretary Robert Gates sent a letter Wednesday outlining his opposition to the secondary engine to Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

 Gates called the GE-Rolls-Royce engine “an unaffordable luxury” and reiterated his recommendation that President Barack Obama veto the defense bill if it includes funding for an “unneeded extra JSF engine.” 


Larson, a sponsor of an amendment scrapping funds for the GE-Rolls-Royce engine, said that despite the backing of the Pentagon, he and his allies face an “uphill battle” in the fight over the 2011 defense authorization bill. 


“It is an uphill battle when you have the might of General Electric and the [House Armed Services] committee behind it,” Larson said in an interview. “We are calling every living, breathing member of the Democratic Caucus. Obviously there are people working this on both sides. We are up against some pretty tough competition.” 


Larson’s amendment had 35 sponsors at press time, including Reps. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.). The lawmakers want to redirect part of the $485 million authorized for the second engine by the House Armed Services Committee to National Guard and Reserve equipment and to pay down the country’s deficit. 


“I think this is a common-sense battle and one that I feel that we are gaining momentum [on],” Larson said. “In these difficult economic times, we have to be able to demonstrate that we can cut spending.”


The House Armed Services Committee and its Senate counterpart for years have believed that a secondary engine was necessary for the F-35 program. They’ve argued that a backup engine would be useful if there are problems with the primary engine, and that competition between two engine-makers could save money over the life of the program. The defense authorizers also believe that a competitive F-35 engine program would reap non-financial benefits such as increased reliability, improved contractor responsiveness and a more robust fighter engine industrial base.


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Larson admitted that during the Carter briefing on Wednesday, House Armed Services Committee staff dominated the discussion. But Larson said Carter “laid out the facts very clearly.” Carter did not take any questions from the press after the briefing. 


As opponents of the second engine were fighting to gain support for their amendment, Pratt & Whitney — which has fought for years to remain the sole engine producer — announced that it delivered to the military the last flight test engine and the first production lot of its F-35 engine for the Joint Strike Fighter. 


General Electric has facilities and congressional support across the country, but is taking nothing for granted.

Jeffrey Immelt, GE’s chairman and CEO, sent a letter to lawmakers on Wednesday making the case for keeping the $485 million for the secondary engine.

“Preserving competing JSF engines allows both suppliers to maintain their skilled workforces and costs will decline immediately and over the life of the program,” Immelt wrote to lawmakers. “Most importantly, the men and the women of our armed services get the best technology to defend our nation without the risk of relying for decades on a single engine.” 


The fate of the alternate F-35 engine appears to be in the House’s hands.

The Senate last year successfully stripped funding for the engine from its defense authorization bill, and this year it is unclear whether the Senate Armed Services Committee will include funding in its bill only to have it stripped during a floor vote.

If the House is successful in keeping the funds, the issue would be subject to negotiations between the House and Senate. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is a strong supporter of the backup engine.

This story was posted at 1:38 p.m. and updated at 7:16 p.m.