WASHINGTON Deliveries of an alternate F-35 fighter engine being built by General Electric Co (GE.N) and Rolls-Royce Group PLC (RR.L) will be delayed by one year, a source familiar with the program said on Tuesday.
That may be bad news for the team, which is fighting to maintain funding for the second engine for the $300 billion Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) F-35 fighter despite opposition by the White House and Pentagon. In October, the GE-Rolls team was forced to halt testing of its developmental engine until January 2010 when a loose nut damaged turbine blades.
"The entire F136 delivery plan has slipped a year," the source, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told Reuters.
The Pentagon's F-35 program office referred all queries to Pentagon spokesman Cheryl Irwin, who said she was unable to confirm a year-long delay with the engine but said no decision had been made on whether to buy the first batch.
"That decision will be based on the design maturity of the engine, the availability of full procurement funding in the FY2010 appropriations, and the status of FY2009 advance procurement funding, currently on withhold," she said in an email.
General Electric spokesman Rick Kennedy said the team had not been informed of a one-year delay, but said the Pentagon's failure to release $35 million in long-lead funding from the fiscal 2009, that ended September 30, could affect the delivery of four low-rate production engines now scheduled for fiscal 2012.
"That funding hasn't been released, and that is an issue," Kennedy said. "It affects our ability to scale up for a production program, including tooling and everything else."
The GE-Rolls engine program, initiated by Congress to ensure competition, has been on schedule and budget thus far.
The main F-35 engine is being built by rival Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp (UTX.N), and is $1.9 billion over budget. Pratt argues that cost overruns on the program were largely due to design changes needed for the F-35 short-takeoff version.
Proponents of the second engine program argue that maintaining competition will pay off in the longer run by making both companies work harder to rein in costs. The Pentagon says the second engine is wasteful duplication.
The GE-Rolls program has been shorted by at least $176 million in funding since fiscal 2007, said one congressional aide, who also was not authorized to speak on the record. Lawmakers on the Defense Department appropriations committees have approved less funding each year than the program office said it needed to complete development.
"No one should be surprised if the program slips when the Pentagon doesn't want the program and every year the amount required to execute the program is not funded," said the aide.
A second source familiar with the program said it made sense to delay work on GE-Rolls production engines given that the team had only completed 52 hours of testing on its F136 engine, far below the 350 to 400 hours expected by this point.
"They need more time to mature. It's probably a good idea to give them another year," said the source, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
BOTH ENGINES HAVE HIT SNAGS
Pratt has also experienced problems with its engine that forced a major redesign of a turbine blade in 2007.
But Pratt argues that at a similar point in its development program, it had already logged 1,133 hours of testing on its engine and had gone more than 700 hours without an incident.
"The GE-Rolls engine has only accrued 52 hours and had four incidents," said Pratt spokesman Jay DeFrank. He said Pratt had experienced four engine incidents in more than 12,800 hours.
The entire F-35 program has come under renewed scrutiny after an internal Pentagon report said the program needed $16 billion more in funding and two more years to complete.
Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter told Defense News in an interview published late on Monday that he expected to finalize a plan by late November with new "management tools" to avoid cost increases and delays predicted by the report.
Carter plans a major November 21-22 meeting on the F-35 program to unveil the plan, which could include accelerating flight tests, the publication said. It said the Pentagon was also looking closely at cost growth on the Pratt engine, and a special high-level team is due to wrap up a review by November 20.
Congressional aides said the Pentagon had not released the 2009 long-lead funding for the GE-Rolls production engines because they were waiting for House and Senate appropriators to finalize the fiscal 2010 defense budget, probably in December.
The House version of the defense appropriations bill included $560 million for the alternate engine. The Senate bill included none, but Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye has said he favors continuing the program.
President Barack Obama signed the fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill, which approved $603 million for the second engine, because it maintained the number of planes in the F-35 program. But Pentagon officials remain opposed to the alternate engine and are closely watching negotiations for the appropriations bill.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)