House panel reverses cuts in aircraft programs

The House Armed Services Air and Land Forces Subcommittee Friday unanimously approved its part of the fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill, again overruling the Pentagon to require a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and potentially slowing the process of getting the multiservice aircraft into the field.

Meanwhile, the House Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee addressed worries that delays in development of a electromagnetic catapult could wreck the construction schedule for the Navy's next aircraft carrier.

Marking up its portion of the authorization bill, the panel adopted language to require the Navy to streamline management of the catapult program and link the careers of the officers in charge to its success.

Both subcommittees unanimously approved their share of the bill to the full committee, which plans to mark up the measure Tuesday.

In addition to authorizing $603 million for continued development of an alternative engine for the F-35, which the Pentagon has tried repeatedly to kill, the Air and Land Subcommittee ignored Defense Secretary Gates' decision to stop production of the C-17, adding 17 of the Boeing-built strategic transports to the authorized force level.

Air and Land Forces Subcommittee Chairman Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, said sustaining development of the alternative F-35 engine was necessary to remove the risk that the primary fighter for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps could be grounded by a future failure of the only engine.

But the panel ordered 25 percent of the F-35 development funding withheld until certification that the alternative engine funds have been spent and the Pentagon submitted the 30-year aircraft production plan required by the fiscal 2009 authorization. The subcommittee cut two of 30 F-35s requested in the budget.

The panel accepted Gates' action to terminate the manned ground vehicle portion of the Army's Future Combat Systems and to give control of the Joint Cargo Aircraft program to the Air Force. Panel members demanded clearer directions from the Pentagon on the future of FCS and an explanation for the JCA decision.

At Friday's Seapower Subcommittee markup, lawmakers responded to a Government Accountability Office warning in March that aircraft carrier catapult development costs were exceeding its budget and that one portion of the testing program is two years behind its original schedule.

Navy officials are committed to the electromagnetic system, which has been touted as more powerful and less stressful for the rest of the ship.

If the new catapult doesn't work, the ship essentially will be "a $7 billion helicopter carrier," said Seapower Subcommittee Chairman Gene Taylor, D-Miss. That would leave the Navy with just nine fully functional flattops.

His panel also took aim at the Navy's management of the troubled Littoral Combat Ship program, though members essentially agreed to relax a $460 million per ship cost cap by removing government costs from cap calculations.

Each LCS -- the Navy wants 55 -- originally was to cost no more than $220 million. The ships are smaller and faster than the Navy's $1 billion destroyers, designed for close-to-shore missions like mine-hunting and counterterrorism.

"I will not propose one penny more," Taylor said. The markup gives contractors Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics a "take it or leave it" offer to continue building the ships, he said. If they drop out of the program, the markup authorizes the Navy to put together a proposal for other contractors to bid on.

"A lot of people would jump at the chance to build that ship," at $460 million apiece, Taylor insisted.

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