Pentagon officials plan to meet with the contractor building the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s alternate engine about its proposal to self-fund the embattled program, Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter said yesterday.

Carter, appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) as it weighs his nomination to be deputy secretary of defense, told second-engine supporter Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) that he still has “real concerns about that (self-funding) proposal based on what I have heard so far.”

Yet he said current Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn and the Air Force acquisition chief David Van Buren intend to meet with the contractor about the self-funding concept.

Carter added that if confirmed as deputy defense secretary he’d be “happy to have those meetings and to learn more about the so-called self-funding proposal” if, at that time, Lynn hadn’t already held the meeting. 

“Anytime one of our industry partners has an idea on affordability, I’m very open to ideas on affordability and would be willing to listen to that,” he said.

Supporters of the F-35 alternate engine, the F136 developed by a General Electric [GE] and Rolls-Royce team, were slightly optimistic about Carter’s comments.

The Pentagon has maintained the second-engine program is unneeded and too expensive, and terminated it in April shortly after Congress voted to kill FY ‘11 funding for it. Yet some powerful lawmakers, including the heads of the House and Senate armed services committees, support the program they said may cost the same over the long term as continuing with just one F-35 engine. The primary engine, Pratt & Whitney‘s [UTX] F135, has experienced cost overruns.

The General Electric-Rolls-Royce team offered to spend its own money to continue developing the alternate engine through the end of fiscal year 2012. The FY ’12 defense authorization bill the House passed in May would allow the second-engine contractors to use F136 equipment to continue developing it at its own cost. The bill also would ban the Pentagon from spending money on performance improvements to the main engine if it does not support a second engine.

The White House, though, said President Barack Obama could veto the House-passed defense authorization bill over some of the second-engine language. Carter also argued in a June 13 letter that the General Electric-Rolls-Royce proposal to pay for the F136 engine itself is “simply not realistic” and would force costs on the government (Defense Daily, June 23).

The self-funding provision in the House-passed defense authorization bill would require the Pentagon to preserve and store more than 250,000 items of government property purchased under the F136 development contract and provide it to General Electric and Rolls-Royce “at no cost to the federal government.”

The SASC’s version of the FY ’12 defense authorization bill, which the Senate has not yet debated, does not say anything about the self-funding proposal. Yet it does have language, championed by Pratt & Whitney supporter Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I/D-Conn.), explicitly banning the Pentagon from spending development money on the F136.

SASC Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), noting Carter’s comments yesterday about the forthcoming meeting about the self-funding proposal, told Defense Daily he remains a second-engine supporter.

The alternate-engine, Levin argued yesterday, provides “savings that now are going to be more important than ever, I believe, because of the cost overrun of the first engine, and because of the willingness of the contractor to at least pay for some of the cost of maintaining the (research and development) R&D on the second engine.”

SASC Ranking Member John McCain (R-Ariz.), though, told reporters yesterday he remains opposed to the second engine.

In the Senate, he said, “It has some support but I don’t know if it’s viable.”

The House legislative language may be the last hope, at least in the congressional realm, for reviving the alternate engine.

The House passed a FY ’12 defense appropriations bill in May with no alternate-engine monies, and the Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee (SAC-D) included no funding for the engine effort in the version of the appropriations legislation it unveiled yesterday.

Yet Senate Appropriations Committee (SAC) Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) told reporters yesterday his panel will discuss the second engine during the SAC’s markup of the appropriations legislation tomorrow. He did not provide details, but confirmed the engine effort is not funded in the SAC-D bill.