House panel wants extra F-35 engine back

Defying both the White House and the Pentagon, the House Armed Services Committee is considering bringing back to life the alternate engine program for the stealth F-35 fighter jet.

After years of wrangling with Capitol Hill over the costs of building and maintaining two different engines for the F-35, the Defense Department officially terminated the General Electric/Rolls Royce engine program last week.

But supporters on the Armed Services panel, who are in the throes of drafting the annual defense authorization bill, want to at least preserve the option of building a second engine for the advanced fighter jet.

At stake is the $110 billion international market for the F-35 engine, which Pratt & Whitney, the fighter's primary engine maker, now controls exclusively.

The engine's supporters say competition for a share of the engine market would drive down costs and improve the product. But Pentagon officials argue that the $3 billion needed to finish development of the alternate engine and begin production is simply unaffordable.

The House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee, which will consider its portion of the massive defense bill on Wednesday, has already drafted language that would force the Pentagon to buy both engines if defense officials determine they have to improve the performance of the engine.

General Electric officials, who are worried that losing the F-35 engine would make them less competitive on future military aviation programs like the Air Force's next bomber, plan to invest at least $100 million a year to keep a core engineering team in place and continue some limited work on the program.

The subcommittee's provision, though weak, would give GE and Rolls Royce the fighting chance they need to regain a portion of the engine market. It might also only be a starting point for the committee.

Armed Services members, including Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., are considering stronger language, which could be added to the authorization bill when the full committee meets next week to consider the legislation.

"It's still early, but it's no surprise Mr. McKeon is supportive of the program," McKeon spokesman Josh Holly said on Tuesday.

Holly said McKeon or others might propose additional provisions on the alternate engine, but the language had not yet been finalized.

Last month, Congress stripped $450 million for the engine from the bill funding the government for the rest of the fiscal year-a move that led to its official termination on April 25.

With concerns mounting about the deficit, theoretically there would be little appetite in Congress for investing heavily in an engine the military says it doesn't want or need.

GE says it's not money the company is after. The firm is pushing for lawmakers to include in the authorization bill a provision that would at least allow them access to the engines-which are now owned by the government-testing facilities, and the F-35 program office.

"How do we keep this program going?" GE spokesman Rick Kennedy said. "Our desire, given that outlook, is how do we get access to the hardware and keep this going?"

But Pratt & Whitney sees any such provision as a slippery slope that could ultimately lead back to full funding for the alternate engine.

"This is a $3 billion Trojan horse," a consultant for the Connecticut-based company said. "What they're really trying to do is get under the radar screen [and] keep the government on the hook as long as they can."

On Wednesday, the Armed Services subcommittees began releasing the details of their versions of the authorization bill, which sets Pentagon policy and prescribes military funding levels.

For the F-35 fighter, which is the largest single program on the Pentagon's books, the Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee would authorize $7.7 billion to develop the planes and buy the 32 aircraft the Pentagon has requested for fiscal 2012 for the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force. The Pentagon had requested a total of $9.4 billion for the program.

The drafted bill authorizes a 1.6 percent pay raise for the military, which matches the Pentagon request, according to a summary provided by the Military Personnel Subcommittee. The bill also expresses the committee's "deep concern" about any efforts to reduce the size of the Army and Marine Corps, lining up a potential clash with defense officials as they try to cut $400 billion from the Pentagon's budget over the next 12 years.

The Strategic Forces Subcommittee's portion of the bill boosts the $10.1 billion requested for various missile defense programs by a total of $110 million.

The panel does make cuts to missile defense efforts, including $149.5 million from the $406.6 million request for the Medium Extended Air Defense program, and eliminates funding for the Precision Tracking Space System. But it boosts other programs, including an additional $110 million for U.S.-Israeli cooperative missile defense efforts.

The Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, meanwhile, is proposing $14.9 billion to buy 10 new ships next year. The panel also would pave the way for a multiyear procurement contract for the Navy's DDG-51 Arleigh Burke Class destroyer, a move that could save money on the ships.

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