The F-35 fighter jet’s alternate engine has survived White House veto threats and knock-down congressional budget battles, but on Thursday the Pentagon finally said it is halting spending — delivering a major, albeit short-term, victory to President Obama.
Using Congress’ ongoing budget stalemate as cover, the Defense Department said it was issuing a 90-day stop-work order on the second engine production line run by GE/Rolls-Royce.
“In our view, it is a waste of taxpayer money that can be used to fund higher Departmental priorities, and should be ended now,” the department said in a statement announcing the decision, which leaves the F-35 to rely on just one engine supplier, Pratt & Whitney.
With billions of dollars already sunk into the second engine, it has become a key battle in the test of wills between the president and Congress. Mr. Obama wants to find some defense programs to cut, while many lawmakers have balked.
In the 2010 budget cycle, Mr. Obama proposed cutting both the F-35 alternate engine and funding for the F-22 fighter. He succeeded in eliminating the F-22 money, but lawmakers still forced him to take the F-35 engine money.
The Pentagon was able to act unilaterally this week because Congress is tied up in knots over 2011 spending, and funding for the engine is caught in that limbo.
An influential member of Congress objected to the decision, as did GE/Rolls-Royce. In fact, the companies said they will sink their own money into the project for now, hoping Congress comes back and reverses the Pentagon’s decision.
“We are fully committed to delivering a better engine for the F-35 program, and have no intention of abandoning the war fighter and taxpayers,” David Joyce, president and CEO of GE Aviation, said in a letter to employees. “Everyone knows competition saves money. Our supporters in Congress are more determined than ever and are encouraging us to press the merits of our case.”
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is expected to be the workhorse fighter jet of the future, and total lifetime project costs have been estimated as high as $1 trillion.
Congress included $450 million in spending for the engine in the 2010 spending bills despite a vague veto threat from Mr. Obama.
This year, the president’s veto threat was more specific. Still, as of December he was prepared to sign a bill that included money for the project.
But with out-of-control spending dominating Washington, the president and engine opponents have stiffened their spines. The House voted 233-198 last month to zero out the $450 million as part of its bill to cut $61 billion from spending, and Senate Democrats followed suit, cutting funding for the engine in their competing bill.
A final bill has yet to pass Congress, though, and the stopgap funding includes money for the second engine. The project was left out of the defense policy bill, however.
Rep. Thomas J. Rooney, the Florida Republican who sponsored the House amendment cutting funding, said with the president and both houses of Congress having gone on record opposing the second engine, the Pentagon has made a smart move.
“When Congress eventually approves a long-term continuing resolution, I’m confident that it won’t include funds for the extra engine,” he said. “I am thankful the Pentagon is taking the step to focus its spending on more pressing needs.”
Still, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican, said the Pentagon should wait until a final spending bill passes Congress before stopping the money.
“The secretary should follow current law and not pre-empt the congressional deliberation process by yanking funding after a single amendment vote,” he said.
Congress is on a 10-day recess. When it returns, the first major piece of business will be passing a bill to fund the government through Sept. 30.
The Pentagon says having two engine suppliers creates duplication and wastes money, while GE/Rolls-Royce supporters say the competition between two companies will hold down costs in the long run and provides a safeguard should the primary contractor’s engine develop problems.
“In this era of fiscal responsibility, I am stunned that the administration and the Congress would accept the argument that it is good policy to save a dollar today only to spend a thousand dollars tomorrow,” Mr. McKeon said.
The Washington Times reported this month that if Congress did zero out the program, any money spent on the engine in 2011 would have to be reclaimed by cutting from other programs. Some members of Congress disputed that assessment, but if true, stopping payment on the engine now could save other priorities from facing the ax later.
The Defense Department says more than $140 million already has been spent in fiscal 2011 on the second engine.