Bill to fund second F-35 engine passes U.S. House committee

Over Pentagon and White House objections, the U.S. House Armed Services Committee OKs defense bill that includes $485 million for GE/Rolls-Royce F136 engine alternative to the established F135 manufactured by Pratt & Whitney.

The full U.S. House Armed Services Committee (HASC) on May 19 passed a National Defense Authorization Bill that includes $485 million in continued funding for the GE Aviation/Rolls-Royce F136 engine for the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) aircraft.

The F-35 is currently powered by the F135 engine, designed and manufactured by Pratt & Whitney (East Hartford, Conn., USA). The GE/Rolls-Royce F136, which is more than halfway through its development process, has been offered as a potential second engine option for the airplane and would provide healthy competition for the F135, contend proponents. However, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and President Barack Obama have stated that a second engine is not needed and have asked that the National Defense Authorization Bill not include funding for the F136.

Sales of the F-35 are expected to be in the 5,000 to 6,000 unit range over the next 30 years. The engine contract alone for the craft is expected to be $100 billion over that period.

GE Aviation, in a May 19 statement, noted that "the Committee strongly endorsed an annual, head-to-head competition to the F-35 propulsion system, which avoids a decades-long, $100 billion engine monopoly being handed to a sole-source provider." HASC Subcommittee chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) emphasized that “the Pentagon’s own study on F-35 engine options indicated it would cost no more to reduce operational risk and achieve the benefits of a competitive engine program, than to fund a sole source engine program.”

Ranking HASC member Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) said he was pleased the bill included “funding necessary to continue development for an alternate engine for the Joint Strike Fighter. Competition is warranted and critical and costs nothing more according to the Government Accountability Office [GAO].”

In a May 20 statement, Gates said he will ask President Obama to veto the National Defense Authorization Bill if it includes funding for the F136, but that if Congress includes an additional half of a percentage point to the military pay raise over the administration’s recommendation, he will not recommend a veto. Gates told Time magazine last week that the GE engine proposal low-balls its costs, is based on an inadequate design, and has only 200 hours of testing compared with 13,000 for the Pratt powerplant. "We're in favor of competition," he told Time. "But my idea of competition is winner takes all."

The GAO, GE noted, recently estimated that competition between the two F-35 engine makers could lead to long-term savings of up to 21 percent for the $100 billion engine program.

F136 engine development is being led by GE Aviation (Evendale, Ohio) and at Rolls-Royce (Indianapolis, Ind.).