In a vote that signals escalating military budgets may come under the budget axe, a bipartisan coalition of House deficit hawks and proponents of smaller defense budgets voted 233 to 198 Wednesday to cancel development of a back-up engine for the F-35 joint strike fighter, already the most costly procurement program in Pentagon history.
The 233-198 vote came on an amendment sponsored by two-term Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., which removed $450 million from this year’s budget slated for the continued design and testing of the engine. A shutdown would affect approximately 800 jobs at a General Electric plant in southwest Ohio that is next door to House Speaker John Boehner’s district and within a few miles of the family bar where he grew up. Joining with 123 Democrats were 110 Republicans who opposed the $3 billion engine program.
While the engine was opposed by President Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Pentagon officials cautioned Congress against making deeper cuts in Pentagon programs in its rush to reduce the deficit, which is slated to reach $1.6 trillion this year. “Cuts can only go so far without hollowing the force,” Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday.
But defense analysts said the vote signaled a major sea change is underway in the nation’s attitude toward ever-escalating defense budgets. The build-up since 9/11 was the largest of the post-World War II era. “Defense is more on the table than it was before,” said David Berteau, a defense spending expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This vote says defense is going to be part of deficit reduction.”
GE officials are vowing to continue fighting to keep the second engine program on track. Its massive inside-the-Beltway lobbying and advertising campaign, which highlighted the need for “competition” in engine procurement to keep costs down, was countered in recent weeks by a counter-campaign sponsored by Pratt & Whitney, the primary engine builder, which called the second engine a waste. Sen. Joe Lieberman and the Connecticut congressional delegation where the primary engine is being built led the opposition to the second engine. GE in 2010 spent $39.3 million on lobbying, up from $26.4 million the previous year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“We’re disappointed, but we’ll take this fight to the Senate, where we have significant support,” said Rick Kennedy, a spokesman for the firm.
The Republican leadership, which had supported the program, accepted the vote as an expression of the dominant anti-spending mood in Washington. The amendment was tacked onto a continuing resolution that will keep the government operating until the end of the fiscal year on October 1. While 30 of the more than 500 offered amendments to the continuing resolution would have cut defense, the overall bill still includes $516.2 billion for the Pentagon, an $8.1 billion or 1.6 percent increase over last year’s level.
“The goal of the leadership this week was to cut spending, and allow the House work its will, and that is exactly what is happening with this open amendment process,” said a spokesperson for Rep. Eric Cantor, the House majority leader. On Tuesday, Boehner, echoing GE lobbyists, told reporters, “I believe that over the next ten years this [the GE engine] will save the government money.”
The vote could signal trouble ahead for the broader F-35 program, which is slated to cost $382 billion over the next quarter century to replace nearly 2,500 fighter jets in the Air Force, Navy and Marines. Berteau said recent Pentagon planning documents showed the F-35 will cost more over the next several decades than the next 24 procurement programs combined.
Gates recently gave Lockheed-Martin, the primary contractor on the F-35, two years to iron out technical difficulties in the Marine’s special edition of the fighter, which can hover for short take-offs and landings. He also delayed procurement for the other services, although most of that money was re-programmed into further research for the program.
“This budget has another round of cost growth in R&D,” said Berteau. “You don’t save money by making the program take longer.”
The president’s fiscal commission called for cutting the overall program in half, and expanding production of already existing jets like the F-16 and F-18, which it said were sufficient to meet any foreseeable defense needs. Some defense analysts said that doesn’t go far enough.
“The F-35 program is a technical failure and a cost disaster,” said Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information. “The whole thing should be cancelled.”
House Kills F-35 Engine from Spending Bill (ABC News)
In Defeat for Boehner, House Votes to Eliminate Funding for Second F-35 Jet Engine (Washington Post)
House Kills F-35 Engine Funds in Defeat for Boehner (Bloomberg Businessweek)