Pentagon won't budge over RR fighter engine

Pentagon officials yesterday stuck to their collision course with Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, by defending their decision not to buy an alternate engine for the pricey Joint Strike Fighter.

In its 2007 budget request, the Pentagon scrapped a multibillion-dollar engine program to develop a second, redundant engine for the $256 billion fighter, the Pentagon's most expensive airplane to date.

The Pentagon was planning to offer funding for a choice of engines for the first fighters, built by Lockheed Martin. Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technology Corp., has a contract to build the primary engine. General Electric and Britain's Rolls-Royce won a $2.4 billion contract last summer to develop the second engine.

But in its 2007 request, the Pentagon dropped funding for the GE-Rolls-Royce engine, spurring tension in Congress and Britain, America's main partner in the multinational fighter program. Seven other nations including Italy and Australia are participating.

"It is not cost-advantageous to the government to have a second engine," Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England told the Armed Services Committee yesterday.

He argued that funding the GE-Rolls-Royce engine could delay the fighter program and siphon money from other programs. "This is our decision to be made," England said.

Warner disagreed, insisting that having competition would save money and reduce risk. He described the Pentagon's decision retract the $2.4 billion contract it awarded in August as "perplexing." He was "astounded" at the Pentagon's revelation that Britain was not told of the decision.

"This engine is in the program because Congress decided to have the engine," England said. Pentagon calculations show that a second engine will not bring net savings, he added.

After several fiascos with the F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, which relied on one engine, Congress more than a decade ago started an alternative engine program for fighter jets, and since 1996 it has paid GE-Rolls-Royce to do the job.