'Competition is good': Abercrombie lobbies for second fighter engine

A senior House defense authorizer is lobbying for support of a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) this week sent a memo titled “Competition is good for the Defense Department too!” to his colleagues, urging them to back funding for the fighter jet engine built by General Electric and Rolls-Royce.
 

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The GE-Rolls team has been in a tug-of-war with Pratt & Whitney, which builds the primary engine for the F-35.
 
GE and Rolls-Royce found themselves on the losing end in the Senate, where both defense authorizers and appropriators opted against funding the second engine and heeded the calls of President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to stop funding the alternate GE-Rolls engine.
 
Now, the matter is a sticking point in conference negotiations between the Senate and the House over the 2010 defense authorization bill. The House approved money for the second engine.
 
“The Department of Defense wants to give a sole-source, $110 BILLION, 30-year contract to one fighter engine company, as part of the largest defense acquisition program in Department of Defense history — the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter,” Abercrombie told his colleagues in the memo.
 
“The Department of Defense had to learn this hard lesson once before — in the late 1970’s and early ‘80s — when the Air Force had awarded a sole-source engine contract. That decision resulted in large-scale grounding of F-15 fighters because the sole-source engine failed to provide reliability and durability. It took the 'Great Engine War' to correct the problem through an alternate, competitive engine acquisition program.”

Abercrombie stressed that all competitive programs have up-front investment costs. “The larger the program the larger the up-front cost. But with more than 3,000 engines to be manufactured, this investment is warranted,” he wrote.

Abercrombie, who chairs the Armed Services Air and Land subcommittee with jurisdiction over the F-35, made the case in his memo that the Pratt & Whitney engine logged only 140 flight test hours out of the total 11,000 test hours.

“There have been three engine failures, including one last Friday,” Abercrombie said. The veteran lawmaker said that Friday’s test failure makes it “crystal clear” that two engines would be needed.

Pentagon officials this week expressed confidence that the problem with the Pratt & Whitney engine would not delay the F-35 program flight test schedule.

Rolls-Royce officials argue that the government would not save money if it stopped funding the development of the second engine. The GE-Rolls team won a $2.5 billion contract in 2005 to build the second engine and the government has paid out $1.7 billion, or 70 percent, of that contract on the engine development.

Another $800 million parsed over the next three years would be needed to complete the contract and the development. On top of the $800 million, it would take another $130 million to jump-start the actual production of the engine.

Abercrombie took an indirect swipe at Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who recently pressed House lawmakers to sign a letter to Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), the Armed Services panel chairman, in support of the primary jet engine built by Pratt & Whitney. Pratt & Whitney builds the engine in DeLauro's state.
 
“One of our colleagues recently wrote, asking us to support this $110 BILLION non-competitive deal and sign a letter to Chairman Ike Skelton. She didn’t mention her district’s economic interest in this sole source contract,” Abercrombie said. “She never talked to me, the subcommittee chair responsible for this program. I would have explained that the Armed Services Committee has no opposition to her constituent’s engine. …If competition doesn’t apply to a $110 billion program, where does it apply?”