Second engine, F-35 programs will survive House debate

A controversial project to develop a second F-35 engine and the broader fighter jet development effort will take only rhetorical fire this week as the House considers a Defense policy bill.


Contrary to widely held expectations in the Defense sector, several House critics of those programs have opted against offering amendments that would have targeted those two initiatives, congressional and industry sources said Wednesday.

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That development should allow senior officials at the Pentagon, F-35 prime contractor Lockheed Martin and F136 engine makers Rolls-Royce and GE to breathe momentary sighs of relief.

On the second engine matter, which has become a political hot-button issue because much of its work is done in the political swing state of Ohio, “we’ll see some discussion but no amendments” as the House works on 2012 Defense authorization legislation, one industry source said.

Proponents say an alternative F-35 power plant will save tens of billions over decades and provide a backup should Pratt & Whitney’s primary engine fail. Opponents such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates say it would “waste” $3 billion and is not operationally necessary.

The House Armed Services Committee included in the 2012 policy measure a plan that would require the Pentagon to create competition for the F-35 engine contract should certain enhancements be made to the main engine.

The White House on Tuesday, in a statement of administration policy about the House Defense policy bill, issued a veto threat if the F136 engine provision reaches President Obama’s desk.
 
During the markup earlier this month of the authorization bill, the panel approved an amendment that would mandate that no government funds be used if Rolls and GE follow through on a claim to self-fund the second engine program during 2011 and 2012 and are granted access to government-owned material and equipment.

For that reason, F136 opponents in the House are content to let the provision pass unabated. A House-Senate conference committee would have to decide what to do with it later this year as they hammer out a final Pentagon authorization measure.

“The House, Senate, White House and Pentagon have all spoken on this issue and made clear that there is no funding for the wasteful extra engine,” Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) told The Hill in a statement. “While I am concerned that some language in the bill seems designed to keep the extra engine on life support, I am pleased that the bill does not include any funding for the development of that unnecessary program. This fight has always been about spending and cost.”

The House measure would provide a lifeline to keep the alternate power plant effort going, but if future Defense budgets seek funds for it, Roomey said, “we will fight those battles as they come.”

“We’re not going to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory,” said one congressional source who opposes the second engine project.

Some defense analysts and industry sources, however, question whether Rolls and GE would be able to use DOD-owned F136 items and facilities at no charge to the government.

Congressional patience with the Pentagon and Lockheed on the overall F-35 fighter development effort has been waning in recent months, as costs continue to rise and technical problems linger.

During the panel’s markup, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) said he would introduce on the House floor an amendment that would take $380.6 million from the Pentagon’s $9.7 billion 2012 request for the F-35 fighter program.

Cooper’s envisioned amendment would have used those funds for Navy and Marine Corps equipment; it also proposed reducing the planned buy of the Marines’ version of the Lockheed Martin-made F-35 in 2012 from six to four.

But the Tennessee lawmaker has since reconsidered, opting against filing the amendment by the Monday deadline.

“Once the committee voted it down,” a Cooper aide told The Hill on Wednesday, “he considered it dead in the water.”

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