British Defense chief urges support for F-35 engine

Despite Pentagon and White House decisions to terminate development of a back-up engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the British defense chief is urging Congress to approve funding to keep that program alive to avoid creating a "permanent monopoly" for the companies supplying the primary engine for the stealthy plane.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., Thursday released a letter he received from British Secretary of State for Defense Liam Fox, who told him the United Kingdom and other international partners on the JSF program are concerned that ending the alternate engine program would cost the United States and its partners more money in the long run.

"We think there are very significant cost benefits to be gained for those of us involved in the programme from continued competition," Fox wrote to Levin, who also supports keeping the second engine alive. "And in the present period of budgetary constraint it is particularly important for us to secure them, especially as the great majority of development costs on the F136 [second engine] have already been expended."

Pratt & Whitney builds the aircraft's primary engine, while General Electric and the British firm Rolls Royce are the contractors for the second engine. Fox acknowledged his country's interest in the program, but emphasized it is "not an industrial-base issue" because most of the work would be done in the United States.

Fox's statements come as lawmakers wrangle with the Obama administration over whether to continue the second engine program.

Pentagon officials have said they simply cannot afford the upfront costs of the engine, which officials estimate would require an additional $2.9 billion over the next six years to finish development and pay for initial production and spare parts. And President Obama has threatened to veto any defense bill that continues the unwanted program.

But supporters of the second engine argue that the long-term benefits of competition could save as much as $20 billion over the life of the program. Meanwhile, a Pentagon analysis released this year concluded that even with the upfront investment in the second engine, the cost difference between buying one engine and having two different ones for the F-35 is a wash.

The GE/Rolls Royce engine has solid backing in the House, which approved a fiscal 2011 defense authorization bill in May that includes $485 million for the program. The House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee's version of the fiscal 2011 defense appropriations bill adds $450 million for the engine.

Last year, the tide in the Senate turned abruptly against the alternate engine during debate on the fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill, and senators unexpectedly voted to eliminate it.

The engine is included in neither the Senate Appropriations Committee's version of the fiscal 2011 spending bill nor the Senate Armed Services Committee's fiscal 2011 authorization bill -- despite the support from Levin and Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii. Levin has said he would prefer to fight the issue during House-Senate conference negotiations rather than lose another fight on the Senate floor.

In his letter, Fox also said he was worried about the risks of relying on one engine for thousands of JSF aircraft destined for U.S. and allied countries' fleets -- echoing statements made by Levin and others.

"We are concerned at the technical risks of making this very substantial programme solely dependent on engine throughout the life of the aircraft with all the risks and vulnerabilities that this brings," Fox wrote.

Levin said he shared the letter with Defense Secretary Robert Gates but has not received a response.

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