Armed Services panel throws lifeline to F-35 engine project

A House panel on Wednesday extended a helping hand to Rolls-Royce and GE in their bid to save the F-35’s alternate engine. 

During a markup of the 2012 Pentagon authorization measure, House Armed Services Committee members approved one amendment that would allow Rolls and GE access to equipment so they could continue testing a second F-35 power plant. It also adopted a provision that opens the door for an engine competition while killing another amendment that would have stripped funds for two F-35 fighters.

The panel approved a somewhat convoluted provision designed to provide a lifeline for the second engine, which is being developed by Rolls and GE. 

The Pentagon earlier this year issued a stop-work order for the second engine after Congress did not fund it in a compromise 2011 defense appropriations bill. The military had been trying to end the program for years. 

If adopted in the final version of 2012 defense authorization legislation, the provision would mandate that the Pentagon hold a competition for the engine if certain improvements are made to the primary power plant, under development by Pratt & Whitney.

Committee members who are opposed to the second engine program were expected to propose an amendment to strike that provision, but they held their fire.

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) introduced — but withdrew — an amendment that would have prohibited the Pentagon from allocating monies for the alternative power plant project.

“I know the votes aren’t here in the committee to pass this,” Coffman said, adding he intends to introduce the measure when the authorization is up for debate on the House floor.

The two companies answered that development by announcing they would self-fund work on the engine for an undefined period of time.

The panel gave a second victory to Rolls and GE when it approved an amendment introduced by Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) that would give the companies access to all equipment and data needed to continue testing on its power plant.

The panel adopted the Andrews amendment by a 54-5 voice vote, with two members absent.

In a twist, Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) voted in favor of allowing the companies to access F136 equipment and information to keep alive the testing program at no cost to the government.

Rooney spearheaded an effort earlier this year to kill the Rolls-GE engine program when a majority of the full House voted to strip its funding during a vote on an earlier version of a 2011 Pentagon spending bill.

It was not immediately clear why Rooney would throw a lifeline to a program to which he remains strongly opposed.

He did say during the session that “if the amendment is true on cost … I would have no objection.”

The lone fireworks of the morning portion of the markup came when Rooney took umbrage with Rep. Roscoe Bartlett’s (R-Md.) comments that opponents of the second engine have spread misinformation and spouted incorrect statements.

Rooney called such comments “an insult,” creating tension in a packed hearing room.

Andrews said he brought up the amendment because defense firms that offer to “put their own money where taxpayers’ money would go” while lawmakers debate the merits of their systems should be rewarded.

Rep. Jim Cooper (R-Tenn.) warned that the Andrews amendment might backfire because “there’s no such thing as free.” He is concerned the government would incur some unplanned costs if Rolls and GE are granted the access they need to continue testing.

Meantime, the panel shot down an amendment introduced by Cooper that would have siphoned $380.6 million from the F-35 fighter program. It also would have reduced the planned buy of the Marines’ version of the Lockheed Martin-made F-35 in 2012, from six to four.

The measure would have redirected those dollars to parts and maintenance work on Navy and Marine Corps platforms, things he said those two services “have been begging for.”

Reducing the buy would “send a message to the contractor to get the program back on track,” Cooper said. He said the F-35B variant faces daunting engineering and mechanical issues.

Panel Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) warned before the amendment was killed that shrinking the buy would drive up per-plane costs. McKeon added that the Navy told the committee it would rather use the $380.6 million to buy the fighters.

Rep. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: Latest on scrapped Korea summit | North Korea still open to talks | Pentagon says no change in military posture | House passes 6B defense bill | Senate version advances House easily passes 7B defense authorization bill Overnight Defense: Over 500 amendments proposed for defense bill | Measures address transgender troops, Yemen war | Trump taps acting VA chief as permanent secretary MORE (D-Wash.), the committee’s ranking member, supported the Cooper amendment. He said it appears some misunderstand a risk factor with the F-35B: The Marines might buy early models of the jet but then decide costly design changes are needed.

“Regrettably, the program has not met its milestones,” Smith said. “If it turns out there is a problem, [the service] will have bought something it didn’t want. … There is no efficiency of quantity if what you’re buying is not what you wanted.”