House amendment scraps $450 million slated for alternative F-35 engine

The House on Wednesday voted to zero out funding for a second F-35 engine, handing the Department of Defense a major victory just minutes after senior DoD leaders argued against further cuts.

In a 233-198 vote, the House approved an amendment to its fiscal 2011 continuing resolution to nix $450 million appropriators had included for the alternate engine. Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) sponsored the amendment.

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Pentagon officials — and two administrations — have for several years tried eliminating the alternate engine, being built by Rolls-Royce and General Electric. 

Officials say it is too expensive and not needed because the primary engine, being developed by Pratt & Whitney, will be sufficient. 

Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s spokesman, Geoff Morrell, said in a statement that the Defense secretary “welcomes today’s vote and is gratified that the full House has recognized the merits of the department’s position in opposing the JSF [Joint Strike Fighter] extra engine.”

Despite the loss, Rolls and GE issued a statement almost immediately after the vote and vowed to fight on, noting the Senate has traditionally supported the project.

“While we are disappointed at the outcome, the debate to preserve competition will continue,” GE spokesman Rick Kennedy said in the statement. “Last fall, the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee called the F136 engine a ‘near model program.’ ”

Congressional supporters of a second engine say any design flaw in the primary power plant could prove catastrophic by causing DoD to ground the entire fleet.

But Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, noted it is a derivative of the power plant in the F-22 and added that other U.S. military single-engine jets have had only one engine design.

The office of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sent out a blast e-mail noting 110 “rank-and-file” Republicans voted to kill the engine even though work on it would be done near House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) district.

The Democrats dubbed funding for the engine “the Boehner earmark.” The e-mail noted Boehner did not vote, as is customary, but that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) voted to keep the engine alive. And the project “also conveniently benefits his district,” the e-mail said.

Earlier Wednesday, Gates issued dire warnings against additional defense budget reductions — and encountered little resistance from liberal or conservative House members.

The debate over defense spending too often is “treated as a math problem,” Gates said. Some budget hawks in Congress see the Pentagon’s $553 billion spending plan “and think we must be part of the problem,” he said.

But if that figure were cut by 10 percent, “you would get $50 billion, and so you haven’t gotten very far on cutting the deficit,” he added. The current U.S. deficit is about $1.4 trillion.

“Drastic reductions in the size and strength of the U.S. military make armed conflict all the more likely,” Gates said. “Retrenchment brought about by shortsighted cuts could well lead to costlier and more tragic consequences later — indeed, as they always have in the past.”

Gates told the panel the Obama administration’s last two Defense Department spending plans have “reformed and rebalanced” DoD’s spending priorities. The secretary also noted programs cut or terminated would have, if completed, cost a collective $300 billion.

The lone House Armed Services panel member who suggested defense spending should be reduced was ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who said the United States faces “an additional and new threat — a challenging economic environment and record deficits.”

“In this time of economic hardship and huge deficits, when we ask the American people for their hard-earned tax dollars, we must be absolutely sure it is needed and spent effectively,” Smith said. “Simply spending more, even in the defense budget, is not the answer — we need to be spending wisely.” 

In a striking contrast, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) said lawmakers cannot accurately provide monies to the Pentagon. Under his thinking, defense officials should tell them how much it would take to plan for every threat they see — and to finance the hardware, troops and operations for each one.

Hunter pressed Gates on whether he has “ever spent time thinking of that,” even asking if an estimate for such an all-threat, all-solution budget would be “$2 trillion.” 

Gates responded by telling Hunter that “no one lives in that world.” In a somewhat testy exchange, the outgoing secretary assured Hunter that no defense budget “will ever get to zero threats.”