A US Senate panel is calling on Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to reassess the value of an alternate power plant, such as the General Electric-Rolls-Royce F136 pictured here, for the F-35 joint strike fighter. (US Air Force)
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WASHINGTON — In the wake of an engine fire that grounded the F-35 fleet, a US Senate subcommittee wants senior Pentagon officials to consider reviving an effort to develop a second power plant.
In 2011, the Pentagon ordered GE and Rolls-Royce to stop work on a second F-35 fighter engine, with the Obama administration calling it an example of wasteful defense spending. The department, in announcing a stop-work order three years ago, dubbed the F136 power plant program a “waste of taxpayer money that can be used to fund higher departmental priorities.”
Proponents of what long was known simply as “the alternate engine program” claimed it would have saved substantial amounts of money over the life of the F-35 fleet, while also providing a safety net should the F-35’s primary power plant, being developed by Pratt & Whitney, suffer a major problem.
One day after the Pentagon lifted the fleet-wide grounding order — but with speed limitations — a Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee (SAC-D) report on its 2015 Pentagon spending bill surfaced with language showing lawmakers are having second thoughts about approving the F136 termination.
The report states that SAC-D members believe “that had the alternate engine program continued, competition would have incentivized the F135 engine manufacturer to find creative methods to drive down prices and ensure timely delivery of a high-quality product, which is consistent with current department preference for competition in acquisitions,” states the report.
The legislation, which the full Senate Appropriations Committee is set to approve Thursday morning, “recommends” senior Pentagon officials “reassess the value of an alternate engine program creating competition to improve price, quality and operational availability,” according to the report.
Pentagon officials say evidence suggests the recent engine fire aboard an F-35 in Florida was a one-off.
“All 98 of the other engines did not indicate the same phenomenon that we saw on the one engine that failed,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, head of the F-35 Joint Program Office, said during the Farnborough International Airshow in London. “So we understand what happened. We are now trying to figure out why it happened.
The main engine’s manufacturer says the recent incident does not appear to be related to any past F-35 problem.
“No, this is not related to any incident in the past,” said Paul Adam, president of Pratt & Whitney, also in London. “This is a unique failure mode we had.”
Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall, also speaking in the UK, expressed confidence in Pratt & Whitney and indicated a reintroduction of a second engine for competitive purposes was not in the cards.
“Overall we’re confident in the design. We’re still in development, we still have work to do, [largely] on the margins, but overall we’re confident,” he said. “We’re not interested in this point in going back several years and opening up to another competitor.”
Because of spending caps etched into existing US laws, if Congress decides to bring the F136 program back to life, it would require something else within the Pentagon’s annual budget to be cut.
In other Air Force decisions, the committee recommend an extra $100 million for the service’s Combat Rescue Helicopter program in 2015.
Senators will also declare the program a “congressional special interest item,” meaning it will get extra scrutiny from lawmakers.
The panel also wants the Air Force to provide a report on how it plans to address rescue scenarios in the expansive African and Pacific regions where helicopters could face challenges flying long distances.
“[T]he committee encourages the Air Force to review the joint operational needs and requirements to determine of a high-low capability would best meet the combatant commander’s needs,” the report states.
The panel also calls on the Air Force to review its acquisition strategy for replacing the Northrop Grumman E-8C Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System.
Carrier, Other Navy Matters
The committee becomes the fourth of four key congressional committees to reject the Navy’s plan to decommission rather than refuel the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier George Washington. The bill adds $849 million for the 2015 portion of the refueling overhaul, and expects the Navy to include all remaining funds needed for the work in the 2016 request.
The committee also commended the Navy for its cost-reduction efforts on the John F. Kennedy, second ship of the new Gerald R. Ford-class carriers.
The committee also flatly rejected the Navy’s proposal to inactivate half its cruisers and three amphibious ships.
“The committee does not support the Navy’s proposal due to concerns over the duration of the proposed lay-up period for several of the ships, the additional authorities required, and severe doubts as to whether the Navy would execute the phased modernization plan as proposed given the volatility in Navy budgets in recent years,” the committee report states. “Further, the committee is perturbed by the Navy’s disregard for congressional direction provided for two consecutive years.” The committee supports the modernizing all the ships and keeping them in service.
Other program decisions:
■ Littoral combat ships. The committee approved the Navy’s request for three littoral combat ships and added $80 million to keep block-buy prices for what would have been the fourth ship, now pushed back to 2016. The mission module request was reduced by $71.3 million because of testing concerns delays to ship deliveries.
■ LPD 28. The committee approved incremental funding of a 12th San Antonio-class amphibious transport ship.
■ Joint high speed vessel. $200 million was added to buy an 11th, unrequested, JHSV.
■ Icebreakers. The SAC-D supports the requirement for Arctic ships and directs the deputy secretary of defense, in cooperation with the secretary of the Navy and commandant of the Coast Guard, to provide “a plan to begin expanding US icebreaking capacity that will result in the approval of an operational requirements document no later than 180 days” after the act is enacted.
■ EA-18G. The bill adds $1.2 billion to buy 12 unrequested EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft, and provides $100 million “to extend current production to a minimum production rate of two aircraft per month.”
■ Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance System. Writing that “the committee is concerned that the Navy is proceeding with UCLASS development prior to the formal establishment of stable requirements,” the SAC-D directs approval of the Pentagon’s Joint Requirements Oversight Council before issuing the final request for proposal.
■ MH-60R helicopter. The committee directs the Navy to review the total MH-60R requirement and urges restoration of the 29 aircraft to the 2016 budget request.
■ Electromagnetic railgun. The committee encourages the Navy to conduct “a small railgun demonstration” to support early fielding of a tactical railgun system. ■
Marcus Weisgerber and Christopher P. Cavas in Washington and Aaron Mehta in Farnborough, England, contributed to this report.