Unions press Obama to back F-35 engine

Two large unions are pleading with President Barack Obama to back the development of a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The presidents of the Communications Workers of America and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers on Friday sent a letter to Obama making the case for funding the engine built by General Electric and Rolls Royce based on fears of jobs that would be lost if work ceased. The engine is meant to be an alternative to the primary engine, built by Pratt & Whitney, for the F-35, the newest fighter jet. 

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Obama will need some serious swaying. He singled out the GE-Rolls Royce engine as an example of “unnecessary defense programs that do nothing to keep us safe” when he announced his budget request in May. 

The Office of Management and Budget has issued several statements of administration policy that include presidential veto threats over funding the GE-Rolls Royce engine if adding more money would jeopardize the entire F-35 program.

In the letter to Obama, the two union heads argue that thousands of employees “earn their livings” by building the second engine.  Workers in Kansas, Massachusetts, Kentucky and Ohio work on the GE-Rolls Royce engine.

The second engine, would not only help “ensure the quality of military aircraft, but would also demonstrate the commitment of your administration to high-road, high-wage manufacturing,” wrote Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America and Thomas Bufffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. 

Cohen and Buffenbarger also made the case that having a second engine “would reduce the risk of a single point of systemic failure …substantially affecting,” the F-35 fleet.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has strongly opposed funding the alternative engine program.

Critics of the Pentagon’s decision argue that having a single engine producer for the entire fleet could be risky and make the fighters less reliable. Leading defense authorizers and appropriators in the Senate and House, including Reps. John Murtha (D-Pa.) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), have made the case for granting funds to makers of both engines.

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 and another one the rest.

Pentagon officials said that while such competition might produce modest savings as it builds more than 2,000 planes, the main engine – the Pratt & Whitney one — is progressing well and that makes a second engine program unnecessary.

So far, building a second F-35 engine has received great support in the House. But support in the Senate has ebbed: neither the Senate fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill nor the appropriations bill contain funds for the engine, for the first time in several years. Supporters are holding out hope that the matter will be resolved—and funding restored—in conference negotiations with the House.