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Faced with tough choice on F-35 engine, lawmakers pick all of the above

The Pentagon decided to nix an alternate engine for the embattled jet, but some in Congress aren’t ready to let go just yet.

Reporting | Military Industrial Complex

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the chair of the House Armed Services Committee, is pushing to revive an F-35 engine replacement that the Pentagon decided to nix earlier this year. Rogers’ proposal includes more than half a billion dollars in additional funding for the program and another $245 million for upgrades to the current engines.

The lawmaker’s attempt to save the Alternative Engine Transition Program (AETP) is the latest chapter in a decade-long debate over how to address problems with the original F-35 engine, which has struggled with maintenance issues that have driven up costs and shortened flight hours for the controversy-plagued fighter jet.

Pratt & Whitney, the Raytheon subsidiary that produces the current engine, has argued that upgrades would be a more cost-effective way to overcome these problems. This argument has been strengthened by the fact that an AETP prototype produced by General Electric Aerospace only fits easily into one of the three models of the F-35, and it appears unlikely that it would ever fit into the Marines’ version of the plane.

Given these issues, the effort to revive the AETP has raised eyebrows among military budget watchers, who argue that the attempt to override the Pentagon’s decision is a classic example of Congress’s unwillingness to cut loose expensive weapons programs with dubious benefits.

“We're now just throwing money at everything,” said Dan Savickas of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. “We're upgrading the current engine, and instead of seeing how that plays out, Rogers is also proposing throwing almost three times that amount of money at a new engine that is just for some vague future years.”

The push to save the program could face backlash given restrictions in the debt ceiling deal, which caps military spending at $886 billion for 2024. Some lawmakers have signaled that saving money in the Pentagon budget could free up funds for a future aid package for Ukraine, and a seemingly redundant program like the AETP would be an obvious place to make cuts. But others have made the case that Congress should simply use emergency authorities to blow past the spending caps.

While Rogers once argued that the new engines should be used in the F-35, an anonymous “senior congressional aide” told reporters last week that the lawmaker included funding for the alternative engine “to keep that technology going as we head into sixth-generation aircraft.” Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) — another HASC member — echoed that argument last week, noting in an interview with Breaking Defense that the AETP has “the same sort of technology that could be applied” to the next generation engine program.

But the Pentagon has already doled out $5 billion in contracts to develop next-generation engines, suggesting that continued investment in the AETP would be redundant. And bringing a new engine into production would cost as much as $6.7 billion dollars, adding yet another major cost increase to the F-35 program.

AETP critics also note that, in order to replace the old engines, contractors would have to do the time-intensive and costly work of setting up a new supply chain.

Some argue that Rogers’ fight to save the program has more to do with political interests than national security concerns. General Electric Aerospace — which developed a prototype for the AETP — has recently opened or expanded two plants in Rogers’ home state of Alabama, one of which is located, perhaps not coincidentally, in his district.

“The parochial political aspect of this is really important,” argued Dan Grazier of the Project on Government Oversight. “It’s unfortunately the way Washington works.”

Rogers’ office did not respond to a request for comment from RS.

It remains to be seen whether the arguments against the AETP will prove persuasive to other HASC members, who will discuss Rogers’ bill during a markup on Wednesday. Notably, several committee members, including Pat Fallon (R-Texas), Mike Johnson (R-La.), Jared Golden (D-Maine), and Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), have expressed doubts about the program, citing cost and safety issues.

“We also have significant concerns regarding the risks to pilot safety that would come with replacing the F135 with an unproven technology in the single-engine F-35,” the bipartisan group wrote in a joint letter last year.

But a number of other HASC members have called on the Pentagon to save the AETP, setting up a potential battle in the committee.

Alongside Rogers’ push in Congress, GE has also stepped up its lobbying in a last-ditch effort to save the program. The company has argued that canceling the AETP would be a waste given that taxpayers have already invested $4 billion in the program since 2016.

GE has touted its XA100 engine as a major technological step forward. And it has boasted some impressive stats in lab tests, including a dramatic increase in fuel efficiency that would save millions of dollars over the life of the F-35 if those results translate into the real world. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall appears sympathetic to this argument, saying earlier this year that he would have liked to keep funding AETP but didn’t have enough money to do so without help from the Navy and Marines.

The military contractor also contends that, regardless of whether their engine is used in the short term, continued development of the XA100 will help prepare for the next generation of jets and provide an alternative for the F-35 if the engine upgrades fail to meet expectations. When the Pentagon announced its plans to end the AETP, a GE spokesperson argued that the decision “fails to consider rising geopolitical tensions and the need for revolutionary capabilities that only the XA100 engine can provide by 2028.”

But Grazier of POGO said these claims are undermined by the fact that the engine has yet to face real-life tests, leaving questions about how it will perform in practice.

“It's a dangerous proposition to make really solid, long-term commitments just based on laboratory tests,” he argued. “It is extremely important that there are real operational tests that happen before those major commitments are made.”

(Shutterstock/ Konstantin L)
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