GE, Rolls-Royce to self-fund F136 after stop-work order

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General Electric and Rolls-Royce will spend their own money to keep the F136 engine alive as the companies and their supporters in Congress fight a 90-day stop-work order issued on 24 March by the US Department of Defense.

The joint venture has opposed self-funding the alternate engine for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter since 2006, when the DoD first attempted to eliminate the F136 programme's funding. But the companies were left with no other options after the DoD issued the stop-work order as the debate over the proposed $500 million budget for the F136 in the fiscal year 2011 defence budget continues in Congress.

"We are fully committed to delivering a better engine for the F-35 programme," the F136 manufacturers said in a statement, "and have no intention of abandoning the warfighter and taxpayers."

The DoD, however, says the stop-work order will remain in place for the next 90 days as Congress remains grid-locked on this year's spending bills. The House of Representatives has already voted to remove funding for the F136 in the FY2011 budget, leaving the decision on the programme's fate to the Senate.

By starting to self-fund the programme, GE and Rolls-Royce are actually fulfilling a desire expressed last October by Gen Norton Schwartz, chief of staff of the US Air Force.

"If Rolls and GE are so confident that their product will succeed and bring value to the taxpayer," Schwartz told reporters, "it would be nice if they put a little bit more against that $1.9 billion bill that they want the taxpayer to undertake." The companies, however, want to the Pentagon to complete the development of the F136 engine, which would compete with the Pratt & Whitney F135 on future F-35 sales.

GE and R-R are supported by Republican Howard "Buck" McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Despite losing a vote for the F136 on the House floor last month, McKeon continues to fight for the programme's survival.

"Cancelling the engine competition and awarding a sole-source, never-competed contract constitutes the largest earmark in the history of the Department of Defense," McKeon says in a statement.

The alternate engine was originally funded by the DoD to ensure competition in the propulsion system for the F-35. The programme followed the example of the Great Engine War of the 1980s, when Congress funded a GE-made alternate engine for the Boeing F-15 and Lockheed F-16 after a Pratt & Whitney engine failed to correct cost and performance problems quickly enough.

By 2006, however, DoD officials decided that a competition for the F-35 engine supplier would be unnecessary, citing the sole-source engine contracts on the P&W F119-powered Lockheed F-22 and the GE F414-powered Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.

The cost of the F135 programme, meanwhile, has increased from about $5 billion to $8 billion. Last month, P&W officials announced a "dramatic" cost reduction plan for the F-35's primary powerplant for the DoD, with the goal of delivering the engine for the same price as the less-powerful F119.