March 25, 2011 — -- General Electric has vowed to press forward on a controversial jet fighter engine that the Pentagon does not want because the engine made by a competing manufacturer is "disastrous" and does not work, claims a GE spokesman.
The Pentagon issued a stop work order for GE's engine Thursday, calling it "a waste of taxpayer money." Pratt and Whitney is already developing an engine for the Joint Strike Fighter, and both President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates have said they do not want work to continue on GE's engine, which was commissioned as an alternate.
But Rick Kennedy of GE said his company will keep working on the engine using its own funds because it is confident it has a better product. In a voicemail to ABC News, Kennedy claims that four years into a flight test program, "the lead engine from Pratt Whitney cannot fly the full flight envelope. It has $3.5 billion in cost overruns and every single f*****g engine delivered this year has been late."
After the Pentagon ordered work to stop, Sen. John Kerry, D.-Massachusetts, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D.-Ohio, and Rep. Buck McKeon, R.-California, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, issued statements criticizing the decision and supporting continued development of GE's engine. The engine is being built at an Ohio plant that employs about 1,000 workers, but Kennedy says the company has the continued support of McKeon and other lawmakers who "have no jobs at stake" but are alarmed at Pratt-Whitney's "disastrous" development program.
"We wouldn't even be in the game with this thing if it wasn't for their performance," said Kennedy. Kennedy says GE will self-fund development of the engine until Congress resolves the fiscal year 2011 budget in later this year. He estimated that costs for self-funding would be less than $500,000 per day, but said he expected the budget to be resolved by April 8.
Hugh Risseeuw, director of Navy & Marine Corps programs at Pratt and Whitney, said the company was "pleased" with the Pentagon's decision to stop work on the GE engine. "We feel we have earned this business fair and square," said Risseeuw. "We support the decision of the President and the Secretary of Defense."
Risseeuw disputed Kennedy's assertions that the Pratt and Whitney engine is not functioning properly, can't fly the full flight envelope – meaning can't meet performance expectations in the air – and has had $3.5 billion in cost overruns.
"There is cost growth because of 'new scope' and there is cost growth because of overrun," said Risseeuw. "We acknowledge $808 million in overrun." Risseeuw said he believes GE is adding in costs associated with "new scope," meaning new work requested by the government. For example, said Risseeuw, Pratt Whitney had to do more than $1 billion in additional development because the jet itself, once built, was heavier than planned.
Of the $808 million in actual overrun, said Risseeuw, $250 million comes from subcontractor Rolls Royce, which is also partnered with GE on the alternate engine. "You see the irony," said Risseeuw.
Risseeuw said a problem with engine noise --"screech" -- had been solved, and said that the engine will now be able to complete the full flight envelope.
He granted Kennedy's point that Pratt and Whitney had delivered engines several weeks late in 2011, but pointed to testimony by the Pentagon's point person on the Joint Strike Fighter, who told the House Armed Services Committee earlier this month that he projected remaining engine deliveries for 2011 would be on time.
Risseeuw also estimated that GE is six years behind Pratt Whitney, and has not yet put one of its engines in the air in a jet. "We first flew in December of 2006," said Risseeuw. "I expect the best they can do is 2012."
Obama And Gates Opposed Engine
Both President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates are on record opposing the alternate GE engine, and the House voted in February to stop funding it. The Pentagon cited the House vote and the administration's opposition to the engine when it issued the stop work order.
"The Bush administration opposed this engine. The Obama administration opposes it. We have recommended for several years now against funding this engine, considering it a waste of money," Gates told reporters back in May 2010. "To argue that we should add another $3 billion in what we regard as waste ... frankly, I don't track the logic."
The competing engines are just one component of the F-35 Joint Strike Force program -- one of the most costly weapons programs in U.S. history. The original plan called for the development of 2,443 "fifth generation" planes of three different types: planes using conventional landings, planes capable of use by the U.S. Navy on aircraft carriers, and planes capable of vertical take-offs similar to that of the famed Harrier jet.
Each of the planes ordered from aeronautics manufacturer Lockheed Martin in 2002 was originally projected to cost just over $40 million. That figure has risen nearly 25 percent, according to Lockheed Martin, to closer to $49 million, accounting for inflation over the past nine years. With inflation added, as well as additional production, maintenance and spare parts costs, the total cost per plane tops out at $92 million.
The program has also been delayed several times and recently the contract with Lockheed Martin was extended from its original 2011 deadline to 2016.
"I think what you have to recognize is this is by far the most complex aircraft ever built," Lockheed spokesperson John Kent told ABC News. "We all acknowledge that we underestimated the complexity of developing the airplane. Hindsight is always very clear and I'm sure there are things we would've done differently.
"Yes, we're behind schedule. Yes, we're over budget on developing the airplane, but we exceeded flight test milestones last year. A lot of the problems that were dogging [the project] have been fixed," he said.
GE has pointed to the delays, and what it says are billions in cost over-runs with the Pratt & Whitney engine, as proof that an alternative is needed.
In addition to arguing that an alternate engine could eventually push costs down, analysts with the House Armed Services Committee have also pointed out that a back up could keep the aircraft program aloft even if the primary engine for the aircraft, which is being built by Pratt & Whitney, proves unreliable.
ABC News has previously reported on the controversy over the alternate engine, on GE's expansive lobbying effort in Washington -- the company is now the number one corporate lobbyist in the capital, by dollars spent -- and on the alternate engine's survival despite opposition from the Pentagon and two administrations dating back to 2007.
Despite what ABC News has reported about opposition to the project, said GE's Rick Kennedy, "every attempt to strip this program has been defeated by the Senate."
"We are at square one," said Kennedy.
Pratt and Whitney's Risseeuw declined to predict what would happen when Congress finalizes the budget, but noted that Pratt and Whitney had already won votes in Congress to strip funding. "We prevailed and the alternate engine money was deleted," said Risseeuw. "We hope that that would continue."
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