Gates urges Senate to kill funding for F-35 engine
* Gates calls Senate to reject "unnecessary extra engine"
* McCain calls F-35 program "incredible waste" of money"
By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON, Feb 17 (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged U.S. senators on Thursday to join the U.S. House of Representatives in eliminating funding for a second engine for the Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The Pentagon scored a victory on Wednesday in its five-year battle to kill that program when the House voted 233 to 198 to eliminate $450 million in fiscal 2011 funding for the engine being developed by General Electric Co (GE.N) and Britain's Rolls-Royce Plc (RR.L) as an alternate to an engine built by United Technologies Corp (UTX.N) unit Pratt & Whitney.
Gates welcomed the vote on the amendment and said he hoped the Senate would support the move by House lawmakers.
"I also would express the hope that the Senate will continue to reject the unnecessary extra engine for the F-35 as it did the last time the Senate spoke to this issue, in 2009," Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The Defense Department has tried to kill the program since 2007, but Republican and Democratic lawmakers have repeatedly added funding for it back into the defense budget.
While the Obama administration welcomed the House vote on the second engine amendment, the issue is far from settled.
The White House has issued a veto threat against the overall bill, which would cut about $61.5 billion from the fiscal 2011 budget, and Senate Democrats have sharply criticized the bill.
"This is far from done," said a spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee, whose Republican chairman, Howard McKeon, backed continued work on the GE-Rolls engine.
He said the money stripped from the engine program would go to deficit reduction, not back to the Pentagon, just as Gates was warning lawmakers that the Pentagon faced a crisis if it did not receive additional funds for the rest of fiscal 2011.
Senator Carl Levin, the committee's chairman, and Daniel Inouye, chairman for the Senate Appropriations Committee, have long supported funding for the GE-Rolls engine, arguing that maintaining competition would save money in the long run.
Senator John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, backs the Pentagon's effort to scrap the alternate engine, and said he remains deeply concerned about the overall health of the F-35 program given cost increases and schedule delays in recent years.
"It has been an incredible waste of the taxpayers' dollar and it hurts the credibility of our acquisition process, our defense industry," McCain said at the hearing. "It reinforces the view of some of us that the military-industrial- congressional complex that President Eisenhower warned us about is alive and well."
In his prepared remarks, Gates said the program has received special scrutiny given its huge cost and central importance to replacing the aging fleet of U.S. fighters.
He repeated his threat to cancel the short-takeoff model of the fighter that is being built for the Marine Corps.
Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the committee that decoupling work in the short-takeoff variant would allow even quicker work on the Navy and Air Force variants.
"That puts us in a better position to develop the Air Force and Navy versions sooner," Mullen told the committee.
Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter on Wednesday said he remained concerned about cost growth on the F-35 program, and was keeping close tabs on the program.
"I continue to regard the projected acquisition costs and sustainment costs for the Joint Strike Fighter as too high," Carter told a conference sponsored by Aviation Week. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa, editing by Gerald E. McCormick)