Rep. Bartlett escalates rhetorical fight over F-35 engines

A senior House Armed Services Committee member Wednesday further escalated the panel's battle with the Pentagon over a second engine for the F-35 fighter fleet, calling funding for the jet's primary engine an earmark.

The Pentagon has tried for years to kill the second engine effort, and Congress passed a compromise 2011 Pentagon spending bill last month that contained no monies for it. But House panel leaders continue pushing to keep it alive, arguing competition will drive down costs.

"Many of us believe it was short-sighted for Congress to have failed to fund the F-35 competitive engine program for the remainder of fiscal year 2011," Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee Chairman Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) said in a statement.

Rolls-Royce and GE are building the alternative engine, on which the Defense Department has placed under a stop-work order.

Bartlett called the Pentagon's funding for the primary engine, being built by Pratt & Whitney, "a $110 billion earmark."

During a dramatic House debate and vote on the alternative engine program earlier this year, opponents of the second power plant dubbed it an earmark, the latest example of the political gamesmanship involved.

The subcommittee chairman said DoD has "misrepresented the facts of the F-35 program." He also charged "talking points" given to President Obama two years ago — which stated: "The Defense Department is already pleased with the engine it has. The engine it has works" — was "not accurate when made, and it is not accurate now."

Bartlett then noted since those comments, "the cost to complete development of the primary engine for the F-35 increased nearly 500 percent, from $385 million to $2.3 billion."

HASC members do not believe the Pentagon is pleased with the primary engine, Bartlett said.

Other than a $500 donation from a single employee, neither Rolls-Royce nor GE has donated major campaign monies to Bartlett, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Senior Pentagon officials have testified recently that they would like to see better performance and lower costs from the Pratt-led primary engine project.

The committee's version of 2012 defense authorization legislation will include a provision aimed at giving the alternate power plant effort a new life.

The idea behind the provision is to force competition, said HASC spokesman Josh Holly.

"What we're trying to do is penetrate the disconnect between those in the building who like the engine they have and those in the building who believe the [Pratt engine] is out of thrust," Holly said Tuesday in an email.

"The basic point of the provision is to require a competition before the Department of Defense pushes 'extra' taxpayer money toward an engine that might need 'extra' thrust in order to meet the requirements of the [F-35]," Holly said. "If the Pentagon wants to improve the engine they have, and the engine they believe meets their requirements, by investing more taxpayer money into that effort, there should be a competition."

Bartlett's subcommittee approved its portion of the authorization measure Wednesday, including that provision, sending it to the full panel.

It remains unclear whether a potential amendment to strike that amendment will have ample support when the full committee marks up the 2012 bill next Wednesday, aides said.

The committee is not finished with its engine competition quest.

Another provision unveiled Wednesday would mandate the Pentagon hold a competition for the power plant that will propel the Air Force's next bomber aircraft.

"Competition works and saves taxpayer money in the long run," said Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee.