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House panel moves to revive alternate jet engine

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A U.S. House panel on Wednesday took a step toward reviving the alternate engine for the next-generation F-35 fighter plane over the objections of President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who consider it wasteful spending.

The Indianapolis operations of Rolls-Royce Corp. had been working on the alternate engine.

By voice vote, the Armed Services subcommittee overseeing land and air forces approved legislation that would force the Pentagon to re-open competition if it has to ask Congress for more money so Pratt & Whitney can build the chosen engine. Inevitably in military contracting, the Defense Department has to seek more funds for a highly sophisticated warplane.

The provision would apply to Pentagon spending in the next budget year.

When Congress passed a long-delayed 2011 defense budget in April, it contained no money for the extra engine. It was part of the deal worked out by Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. The Pentagon recently notified the General Electric/Rolls-Royce group that it had terminated its contract and work was stopped a month ago, saving $1 million a day.

Rolls-Royce had about 130 people, mostly engineers, working on the F-35 project in Plainfield and Indianapolis, spokesman George McLaren said.

About 2,500 jobs—mostly in Indiana and Ohio—are tied to development of the engine, and GE has said that figure was in line to nearly double if the project reached peak production.

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., chairman of the subcommittee, said killing the engine project was a mistake.

"Many of us believe it was short-sighted for Congress to have failed to fund the F-35 competitive engine program for the remainder of the fiscal year," Bartlett said. "Yes, our country faces major fiscal challenges. However, to continue to fully fund a $1 trillion F-35 aircraft program and not take the opportunity to maintain competition in the $110 billion engine subcomponent of the program is not in ... the long-term best interests of the program and taxpayers."

In February, House Republican freshmen led the charge in voting to cancel $450 million for the alternative engine, going against Boehner and other House GOP leaders. The House vote was 233-198, with many lawmakers arguing that it was a surefire way to fulfill campaign promises to cut spending.

Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., a member of the Armed Services Committee, led the effort to cut the funds. He vowed on Wednesday to eliminate the provision, calling it a "cutesy way to get it (the extra engine) back in there," and said he would likely offer an amendment to knock it out when the House considers the defense bill.

"I am confident that either in the full House or the Senate, it's not going anywhere," Rooney said.

Gates has urged Congress to kill the second engine for several years, calling it an "unnecessary and extravagant expense." In congressional testimony, Gates said the second engine requires another $3 billion to develop. Spending that money "in a time of economic distress" is a waste, he said.

The Pentagon plans to buy engines for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter solely from Pratt & Whitney of Hartford, Conn. General Electric and Rolls-Royce opposed the move.

The crux of their argument is that forcing Pratt & Whitney to compete against them will produce more efficient, less expensive engines for the nearly 2,500 F-35 fighters the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps plan to buy and fly over the next 40 years. Eliminating the GE-Rolls Royce team gives Pratt & Whitney a "$100 billion monopoly" on the engines, according to the two companies.

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