Congress pursues F-35 engine that Defense Secretary Robert Gates doesn't want

By Craig Whitlock and Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 28, 2010

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates's campaign to rein in defense spending was rebuked Thursday by the House, which approved an aircraft engine the Pentagon does not want despite the threat of a presidential veto.

As the House voted on a $568 billion defense bill, lawmakers tangled over a comparatively minor item: $485 million to pay for a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a plane projected to be the centerpiece of U.S. airpower in the coming decades.

Gates has opposed the extra engine for years, saying it is unnecessary and a waste of money. But Congress has argued that funding a second engine model for the F-35 would keep defense contractors on their toes by forcing them to compete.

Gates has repeatedly threatened to advise President Obama to veto the entire defense bill if Congress pursues the second engine. The House approved the project anyway, overcoming an attempt by opponents to strip it from the bill. That attempt failed by a vote of 231 to 193, with both parties divided on the issue.

"We don't want nor need the extra engine, but this is just one step in a long journey and Secretary Gates is committed to staying engaged in this process the whole way," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said after the vote, adding that Gates will still recommend a presidential veto "if necessary."

The Senate Armed Services Committee did not include money for the second engine in a related defense bill Thursday. But Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the panel chairman and a supporter of the second engine, said the Senate and House will resolve the issue later in a conference committee.

The primary engine for the Joint Strike Fighter is manufactured by Pratt & Whitney, while the second model is built jointly by General Electric and Rolls-Royce. The manufacturers have been engaged in an increasingly visible fight to win support on Capitol Hill and in congressional districts where parts for the engines are made. Both sides have media campaigns that include full-page ads in major newspapers, slots on radio programs and pushing their respective sides on blogs, Facebook and Twitter.

Erin Dick, a spokeswoman for Pratt & Whitney, said the company has 1,500 Facebook fans -- fewer than the 7,000 that the GE-Rolls Royce team boasts -- and has tracked 8,000 letters to Congress via a promotional Web site it is running.

"It is incredible the number of people who've jumped into this debate on social media outlets," she said. "I mean, after all, we're talking about an engine for a plane here."

One Pratt & Whitney ad reads: "This is the year for Congress to stop funding an extra engine for the F-35. For all those -- Republicans and Democrats -- who have talked about cutting government waste, here's your chance."

GE has fired back with its own ads. It also argues that its engine "provides competition that will lead to more than $20 billion in savings over the life of the Joint Strike Fighter program -- savings that equal the cost of producing 200 fighter jets."

The Pentagon has disputed those figures, calculating that it would cost taxpayers $2.9 billion more, on top of $1.3 billion already spent, in upfront costs to develop the second engine. Gates has also said that any potential savings from having a competition between contractors would be "theoretical."

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