Rolls-Royce defends its F-35 engine

Obama administration is threatening to veto alternate engine program.

Faced with a veto threat from Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Rolls-Royce officials Wednesday claimed that producing their alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter would save taxpayers billions of dollars and the promise of better performance in the future.

"It is important to the warfighter, the industrial base and the taxpayer that this program continues to exist," said Dennis Jarvi, president of Roll-Royce's U.S. operations.

At a National Press Club briefing, the officials also emphasized how deeply the London-based corporation is embedded in the United States, with 6,500 employees at 18 facilities in a dozen states, $3 billion in U.S. revenue and $1 billion in U.S.-made exports.

Stressing the extent of their U.S. production, which includes the F-136 jet engine they are developing with General Electric Co., is part of the intense political battle over the propulsion systems for the F-35, potentially the largest aircraft contract ever.

The battle within Congress over the alternate engine is geographical, not partisan, with lawmakers' support frequently based on which of the manufacturers and suppliers are located in their districts.

The Pratt & Whitney engine that already powers more than a dozen F-35s in the test program is produced primarily in Connecticut, with major components from Michigan and other states.

Rolls-Royce is developing the F-136 engine at its Indianapolis factory, and GE claims that the engine would create 4,000 new jobs across the country, many of them in or near its Lynn, Mass., engine plant.

Gates insists that the military does not need and cannot afford the alternate Rolls-Royce-GE engine and repeatedly has warned that he will urge President Obama to veto any defense bill that continues to fund it.

The House ignored that threat in May and approved the fiscal 2011 defense authorization that includes $485 million to continue developing the alternate engine.

The Senate Armed Services Committee, despite the support of Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, did not authorize the alternate engine in its version of the fiscal 2011 bill, which is awaiting action by the full Senate.

Neither chamber has acted on the defense appropriations bill.

During Wednesday's briefing, Jarvi cited a Government Accountability Office report that found competition in defense programs normally produces 20 percent savings. With a predicted cost of production and life-time support for the F-35 engines of at least $100 billion, that would mean a potential savings of $20 billion, for an investment of the $3 billion he said it would cost to complete F-135 development.

"We're not looking for a hand-out. All we're looking for is an opportunity to compete," Jarvi said.

Gates has insisted that the alternate engine would cost more. He also has said that the Rolls-GE engine is not meeting performance specifications.

Jarvi disputed that, noting that the engine has passed Defense Department performance certifications 10 times, with the latest approval in June.

Although Gates has complained that the F-136 is years behind Pratt's F-135 jet, Rolls-Royce officials said the late start allowed them to take advantage of a finished air frame design to produce an engine with a greater air intake capacity. That would mean lower internal temperatures and longer engine life, or additional power, they said.

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