Pentagon, Obama Bomb House Bid To Revive Jet Engine

How many times does the Pentagon have to say no?

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President Bush said no. President Obama and Secretary of Defense Bob Gates said no. The House earlier this year said no. And now, after the House Armed Services Committee ignored everybody and threw a lifeline in its budget to a second costly engine program for the F-35 joint strike fighter, the Pentagon has lowered the boom.

In a letter to the committee's top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith, Undersecretary of Defense Ashton Carter said continuing the two-engine competition, killed by Tea Party Republicans in February, would crash the jet program. "Adoption of this provision would cause substantial harm to the F-35 program," wrote Carter.

And this afternoon, the White House said President Obama would veto the defense budget unless the second engine provision was removed. "If the final bill presented to the president includes funding or a legislative direction to continue an extra engine program, the president's senior advisers would recommend a veto," said the budget office. [Check out editorial cartoons about the budget and deficit.]

Sources say that House opponents are also ready for war over the second engine and will offer an amendment on the House floor to bar, forever, any spending on the competition which the Pentagon awarded to the team of jet-maker Lockheed Martin Corp. and engine-maker Pratt & Whitney, builder of the F-135 engine for the new jet.

At issue is the successful efforts by General Electric and Rolls Royce to keep the competition between their alternative F-136 engine and Pratt & Whitney's F-135 alive over several years, in part because of support from lawmakers like Speaker John Boehner of Ohio where GE has engine shops. Boehner's office said, however, that he played no roll in the new effort to revive the GE engine. See Washington Whispers previous story on the committee's action.  [Read more about national security and the military.]

The House Armed Services Committee says that competition will both cut costs and result in a better engine, once one is finally chosen. As a result they included some language in their budget to revive the competition that the House had earlier killed. However, GE and Rolls Royce would have to self-fund the development.

In the Senate, Ohio's Rob Portman said there is another reason why the second engine project decried by Gates as too expensive and duplicative is needed. In an op-ed for Roll Call, he said that it's good to have two war jet engine makers just in case something goes wrong. "There is an unnecessary operational risk in having just one engine supply 90 percent of our fighter inventory."

Plus, he told Whispers, "Competition, not sole-sourced contracts, is what will drive down costs and serve the taxpayers' best interest in the long run." His evidence: A GAO report backing up that claim on the second engine saving money over time.

In his letter, however, Carter was dismissive of the committee's work, saying that keeping the competition alive in any form would slow the project, boost costs and destabilize an already fragile program. [See editorial cartoons on the economy.]

The provision in the budget, wrote Carter, "would impose a punitive limitation on funding for the F-35 propulsion system that would significantly impede our ability to execute development of the F-135 [engine] and overall F-35 [jet] propulsion integration; add significant cost and delay to F-135 development; and destabilize the F-35 program when it is beginning to stabilize..."

Also, Carter leveled another warning against a possible second jet engine competition for the a new bomber program. Carter said that would spoil the whole plan to share equipment with other aircraft. "A major tenet of the new bomber program is to maximize re-use of existing systems. Very realistic opportunities exist which do not require development of a new engine. Mandating such development will result in increased cost and risk," he wrote.

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