The Defense Department surprised no one last week when it formally killed the multibillion-dollar General Electric/Rolls-Royce F136 alternate jet fighter engine program. The program was an effort to develop a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter with the goal of keeping maintenance costs down. With $3 billion already spent, the remaining development costs for the engine are estimated between $1.9 billion and $2.6 billion. But making sure the program stays dead and buried will be a struggle for DOD. Canceling the program was a big win for Defense Secretary Robert Gates, President Obama, and other frugalists setting their sights on DOD bloat. The program was slated for termination by the Pentagon as far back as January 2006, but some congressmen objected and the program lived on. “The earmark that just won’t die,” Politico called it.
In the coming months, according to industry sources, government officials will begin visiting the 17 production facilities around the country where the engine prototypes are being developed and take possession of the hardware—it was bought and paid for by taxpayers, after all. It’ll be shipped and stored in government warehouses, in case the technology is needed in the future. The companies and the feds will negotiate over who gets to keep which patents. At its peak, the program employed 1,500 workers nationwide, but no one is losing their jobs with the cancellation, according to GE. Most engineers will be moved to new projects, particularly on the commercial side of the business.
Despite the decision, the engine still isn’t dead. About 100 engineers will continue to work on it, poring through test data even after the feds take away the prototypes, with the two companies footing the bill. As for the GE Aviation lobby shop, they’ll remain at full staff as well, though they won’t be flying in any more plant managers to “educate” lawmakers, a key part of the lobbying strategy. “The fight isn’t over for the alternate engine; it’s just become more difficult for us,” says Rick Kennedy, a spokesman for GE Aviation.
Attention now shifts to the House Armed Services Committee, where Chairman Buck McKeon, a big supporter of the engine, isn’t giving up. McKeon, a California Republican, has said that it may be possible to approve funding for the program in the 2012 budget. But in February, Gates told the committee that the program was an “unnecessary and extravagant expense, particularly during a period of fiscal contraction.” It’ll now be up to incoming DOD chief and Clinton-era ledger meister Leon Panetta to keep an eye on the engine’s grave for any signs of reanimation.
Illustration by Ed Wexler for USN&WR.