UPDATED Washington: DoD is ready to give the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s second engine program another look, but only if industry is ready to foot the bill.
DoD acquisition chief Ash Carter said today he is willing to sit down with the General Electric and Rolls-Royce team building the F136 alternate engine.
Testifying at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services committee, Carter told lawmakers that those talks — if they did happen — would focus on the ways both companies would self finance the engine’s development.
Carter is the White House’s nominee to replace former Deputy Defense Secretary Bill Lynn.
If Carter does sit down with the F136 team in the near future, it would be the first time the two sides have talked since the program’s cancellation earlier this year, GE spokesman Rick Kennedy told me.
It is still too early to tell what kind of concessions DoD or GE and Rolls-Royce would have to make, in order to get the F136 up and running again, Kennedy said. But the fact that Carter is willing to have that discussion is a good sign, he noted.
The Pentagon has repeatedly tried to kill the the F136 program, claiming it was too costly and in the end unnecessary, since the department already had the F135 engine in development by Pratt & Whitney.
But supporters of the second engine on the Hill kept the program alive over the years, despite DoD’s wishes, arguing the department needed a backup engine for the fighter in case F135 failed.
However, in the end DoD prevailed when then Defense Secretary Robert Gates officially terminated the F136 program in May, as part of a department-wide cost savings plan.
But that wasn’t the end of the second engine effort.
A few months later, the GE and Rolls-Royce successfully lobbied the House Armed Services Committee to allow the team to keep working on the engine. That language, included in their version of the fiscal year 2012 defense spending bill, let the F136 team keep going only if they financed the work themselves.
The Senate version of the FY12 defense bill did not include any similar provision.
For their part, Pratt & Whitney praised the department’s efforts to drive costs down on the F-35, especially the decision to cancel “a wasteful alternate engine program”, spokeswoman Stephanie Duvall said.
“It is imperative that these [cost savings] happen so that the confidence of Congress and the American public can be restored in this critical fifth generation technology weapons system, Duvall added.
But with Carter now seemingly willing to reconsider the future of the engine program, there is some hope that the House language could make it into the final FY12 defense bill, Kennedy said.
The engine team has slowly been building up support in the Senate, counting among their allies SASC Chairman Carl Levin and Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee Chairman Daniel Inouye and Ranking Member Thad Cochran, according to Kennedy.
Carter’s comments could be the final push that’s needed to get the House language adopted by the Senate, he said.
Should the F136 program come back online, the team could have engines ready by the time early production versions of the JSF start rolling off the line, he said.
Delays in the fighter’s construction have pushed back expected delivery dates of those initial planes, Kennedy explained. That lag in the schedule gives the engine team enough time to get production going and have engines ready for those early jets, he said.