News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 28, 2010

F136 fighter engine wins House vote

TH company partially makes military jet engine

Arthur Foulkes
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Terre Haute won a small victory in Washington on Tuesday when a congressional subcommittee voted to keep funding a military jet engine partially made by a local company.

The House Defense Appropriations subcommittee voted 11-5 to spend $450 million in the next U.S. defense budget on the F136 fighter engine, parts for which are made at Unison Engine Components, a high-tech manufacturing business on South Third Street.

The F136, which is a joint project for General Electric and Rolls-Royce, is an “alternative” engine for the military’s new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The main engine for the fighter is called the F135 and is made by Pratt & Whitney.

The House committee vote was “definitely one more step forward toward solidifying what a lot of us think should be a done deal by now,” said Rod Henry, president of the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce. The F136 “is good for Unison. It’s good for GE and it’s good for Terre Haute,” he said.

Continued funding for the F136 could mean up to 200 new jobs and millions of dollars in new investment at Unison, Terre Haute economic development officials have stated. Funding would also benefit Rolls-Royce in Indianapolis.

Unfortunately for supporters of the engine, President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and many members of Congress have denounced the F136 as wasteful spending.

In fact, the president has threatened to veto any defense bill containing funding for the engine.

Nevertheless, many members of Congress continue to favor funding the F136. They and other supporters argue that the presence of an alternative engine will provide competition for the Pratt & Whitney engine, keeping costs down and performance standards up in the long run.

“There has been much debate on the issue of the second engine, but it all comes down to this: Competition saves money,” said Rep. Jerry Lewis of California in a statement issued Tuesday. Lewis is the ranking Republican on the defense appropriations subcommittee and author of the amendment that continued funding for the F136.

Rep. Brad Ellsworth, D-Evansville, who represents Terre Haute in the House, also supports the F136. In an e-mail to the Tribune-Star on Wednesday, Ellsworth said he supports “competition for the procurement of the engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Competition has proven to save the taxpayers money and improve the operational readiness of our military forces. Since the military plans to buy approximately 2,500 F-35s over the 30-year life of the program, it is critically important that we get it right.”

In May, Ellsworth helped defeat a measure that would have removed funding for the GE/Rolls-Royce engine from the defense bill. That measure was defeated by a vote of 193-231.

Ellsworth and Indiana Sens. Evan Bayh and Richard Lugar are all “very supportive of the GE engine,” Henry said. The Chamber plans to take another group from Terre Haute to Washington in September to continue to lobby for the engine, he said.

GE/Rolls-Royce and Pratt & Whitney have spent millions lobbying in Washington for and against the F136, according to news reports and Politico.com.

While supporters of the F136 won a victory with Tuesday’s subcommittee vote, the battle over the F136 is far from over. Assuming funding for the alternative engine is ultimately part of a House defense bill, that bill would still need to be reconciled with a Senate defense bill, which currently does not contain funding for the GE/Rolls-Royce engine.

On top of that, Obama administration officials continue to take a strong stance against the F136. In a statement Tuesday night to ABC News, White House officials said there has been no change in a message President Obama sent Congress in May. That message stated that the president’s top advisers would recommend vetoing any defense bill containing funding for “an extra engine program.”

Congress has funded the F136 engine for the past decade. Four years ago, however, the Defense Department selected the Pratt & Whitney F135 as the sole engine for the Joint Strike Fighter. Defense Secretary Gates, speaking in June, said guaranteed contracts for both engines is not competition. “My idea of competition is winner takes all,” he said.

Yet supporters of the F136 say history provides examples of alternative engine programs driving down costs and improving quality. “You would think it would be a no-brainer,” the Chamber’s Henry said Wednesday.

Observers note that the stakes in the battle between Pratt & Whitney and GE/Rolls-Royce over the Joint Strike Fighter engine are huge. The military plans to eventually make the all-purpose aircraft its only fighter jet for a generation, meaning it will be the “only game in town” for many years as far as jet fighters are concerned.

For more information on the debate over the F136, visit the GE/Rolls-Royce website, www.f136.com, or the Pratt & Whitney site, www.f135engine.com. Both websites include links to members of Congress.

Arthur Foulkes can be reached at (812) 231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com.