By Marina Malenic

The Air Force’s top officer yesterday suggested that companies developing an alternate engine for the Pentagon’s next-generation fighter aircraft cover more of the engine’s development costs to persuade the government to buy both systems.

General Electric [GE] and Rolls-Royce are developing the F136 alternate engine for the $300 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. United Technologies Corp.’s [UTX] Pratt & Whitney unit, manufacturer of the primary F135 engine, is lobbying to become the sole engine supplier for the largest weapons acquisition program in Pentagon history.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said the GE-Rolls team should consider paying for more of their development effort, which the Pentagon has estimated would cost an additional $1.9 billion.

“If Rolls and GE are so confident that their product will succeed and bring value to the taxpayer, it would be nice if they put a little more against that $1.9 billion bill that they’d like the taxpayer to undertake,” Schwartz said.

He was speaking at the National Press Club in Washington.

At stake is over $100 billion of work if the Defense Department and several U.S. allies purchase over 2,000 of the jets as planned.

Alternate engine supporters in Congress have continued funding the F136 for four years despite Pentagon objections. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has repeatedly said that he will recommend that President Barack Obama veto any defense funding bill that contains money for the second engine. During his first year in office, Obama singled out the F136 program as a prime example of “government waste.”

Second engine supporters have long argued that the precedent of the so-called F-16 “engine wars” of the 1980s helped to drive down costs significantly.

Schwartz yesterday acknowledged that maintaining competition in the program could result in long-term savings. However, he indicated that the Pentagon cannot afford to pay for the project now.

“I don’t deny that competition might well result in some savings over the long run,” he said. “The question is whether we can afford it in the short term.”

Schwartz warned that austerity would be a continuing theme in the coming years and that the Air Force, like the other services, will have to learn to do more with less.

“Defense budgets will continue to level or even decline, even as demands and expectations of our military increase,” he said. “We must become more flexible, more versatile and more efficient to deal with the new fiscal reality.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has asked each of the armed services to come up with cuts to unnecessary programs and overhead in preparation for a Pentagon budget that will grow at about one percent per year–a dramatic slowdown following ballooning wartime spending.