06/01/2010 by JR Russell (email)
Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? I mean, how could anything to do with a fighter jet have anything to do with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?
The Defense Authorization Bill, that’s how.
That tentative victory that was achieved with the inclusion of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal language being added to the Defense Authorization Bill 2011 (H.R. 5136) is now on shakier ground than ever since the house defeated an amendment to defund the production of an alternate jet engine for the F-35.
The saga of the F136 engine is complicated. Issues include the logistics of supporting two engines instead of one (especially in limited spaces like aircraft carriers), the possible benefits of competition to the bottom line, and the benefits and costs of redundancy.
Like everyone, the Pentagon has been trying to cut costs. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has stated he does not want the F136 engine built for the F-35. Secretary Gates has also said he would recommend the president veto any bill that includes further funding for the F136 engine. The Defense Authorization Bill 2011 includes a further $485 million in funding for the F136, alongside the language that repeals Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
President Obama has indicated he will follow the recommendation of the Pentagon and veto the bill.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program: A Tale of Two Engines
Also known as the “Lightening II”, the F-35 Fighter Jet is still in the testing stages, and is projected to cost almost $90 million per unit. The Joint Strike Fighter program was set in motion to replace many of the aging and damaged aircraft that are currently relied upon. The program is guided by four requirements; the jets must be affordable, lethal, survivable and supportable.
Nine countries are involved in the production of the F-35 jets. The United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Canada, Turkey, Australia, Norway and Denmark have all signed on with the United States to purchase these new-generation jets.
There don’t seem to be huge differences between the two engines. While the F135, made by Pratt & Whitney, has been in production for quite some time and has been extensively tested, the F136, made by General Electric and Rolls Royce, has had fewer than 100 hours of testing. However the team producing the F136 say that their engine is better suited to higher temperatures and higher altitudes than the F135 and would be more appropriate to usage in the Middle East, for instance.
The real decisions are budget and logistics based. On the budget issue, one side would argue that spending the money to produce a second engine reduces the number of planes the pentagon can order. The other side of that argument is that competition between the companies producing the different engines may bring the costs down significantly. The program is already years behind schedule with significant cost overruns. The projections on both arguments are just that — projections — and it’s impossible to conclusively prove the future.
There are worries as well that keeping aircraft carriers and bases stocked with parts for two different engines and keeping staff trained to support both engines will create space and readiness problems. The other side of that is that if one engine turns out to have a significant flaw, there is an alternative and the entire jet program isn’t lost.
Will Obama Veto the Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?
The history of presidential vetoes makes for interesting reading. President Grover Cleveland vetoed more bills than all his predecessors combined. President Barack Obama has yet to veto a bill directly (although he used the “pocket veto” on a resolution that had become redundant due to a recent enactment) but has stated his intention to veto any bill that continues to fund the F136 engine production.
Rep. John Larson (D-Conn) has been quoted as saying, “I fully expect the President to follow through with his threatened veto of the Defense Authorization Act if the F-35 Extra Engine Program is in the final legislation.”
Other sources are not as confident, pointing out that he said he would veto it only if it had a significant impact on the number of F-35s that could be ordered.
If Obama vetoes the bill because of the F136 funding, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell could be used as a bargaining chip. As it stands, those who defeated the amendment to defund the project do not have enough votes to override a presidential veto. However, there are at least 100 votes that could be convinced to override a veto (and would be delighted to do so) if the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal was removed from the bill. The two-thirds majority vote needed to override a presidential veto would be easily achievable under those circumstances (unless there were substantial vote losses on the other side due to removing the repeal language).
I’ll be watching this one closely. Will the “fierce advocate” use his first presidential veto on a bill that includes the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell? And if he does, will repeal survive?