Senators urge firm line on axing F-35 engine

A bipartisan coalition of 19 senators is keeping the heat on appropriators to withhold funding for the F-35’s second engine. 

In a letter obtained by The Hill to Sens. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), the Appropriations Committee’s chairman and ranking member, the senators said they agree with Pentagon officials who say the second engine is too costly and unnecessary.

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The senators urged Inouye and Cochran to stick with their decision to not fund the engine in a 2011 continuing resolution by doing the same in a defense spending bill for 2012. 

They applauded Inouye and Cochran for not funding the program in the Senate’s 2011 CR, calling that move “the first step toward terminating the alternate engine program.”

The letter was signed by 11 Democrats, seven Republicans and one Independent. The group includes Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member John McCain (R-Ariz.), as well as Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Ct.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)

The group included a statement made recently by Defense Secretary Robert Gates before the Senate Armed Services Committee, when he dubbed the alternate power plant, being built be GE and Rolls-Royce, “an unnecessary and extravagant expense, particularly during this period of fiscal contradiction.”

They also reminded the appropriations panel leaders that in July 2009, the full Senate “unanimously adopted an amendment to terminate the alternate engine after a vote of 59 to 38 rejecting a proposal to continue funding.” 

If a similar vote happens this year, the senators predict “an even greater majority will join the president, secretary of defense and our military leadership in opposition of this wasteful program.”

Alternate engine proponents say it will save money in the long run, while also providing an operational safety net should the F-35’s primary power plant, being developed by Pratt & Whitney, suffer a problem that grounds the entire U.S. fleet. Three military services plan to buy more than 2,500 F-35s. 

The House last month voted to strip funding for the second engine from its version of a government-wide 2011 CR.

Because work on the alternate engine is done in Ohio, home of GOP House Speaker Rep. John Boehner, the program has become a hot-button issue. The House vote was viewed as a political setback for Boehner.

The Pentagon estimates that ending the development of the second engine will save $3 billion.

Pentagon officials — and two administrations — have for several years tried ending the alternate engine, but Congress has consistently kept it alive.

Gates has said it costs "$28 million a month" and completing it would "waste $3 billion." The nation's fiscal situation makes that unaffordable, DoD brass says.