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Backing Gates, Obama Issues Defense Bill Veto Threat Over Plane Engine

Something to warm the cockles of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ heart: The White House might have disagreed with him over a legislative push to repeal the ban on open gay military service, but President Obama is backing him on opposition to a second engine for the Joint Strike Fighter.

Gates is locked in a battle of wills with Congress to keep the Congress from putting the money for the engine in the defense authorization. He’s given high-profile speeches warning that he’ll recommend Obama veto the bill if Congress doesn’t pay him heed, and his spokesman, Geoff Morrell, reiterated on Monday that the prospective inclusion of the White House-backed ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal doesn’t change Gates’ calculation at all.

Just now, the White House released Obama’s official position on the JSF engine and related Congress-created disruptions to the expensive program. And the veto threat is there:

: The Administration strongly objects to the addition of $485 million for the extra engine program and to associated legislative provisions that limit the obligation of overall JSF development funding to 75 percent of the amount authorized until the funds for FY 2011 have been obligated for the extra engine program, require the Secretary to ensure that each budget in the Future Years Defense Plan include, and expend, sufficient funding to continue the program, and designate the F135 and F136 engine development and procurement programs as major subprograms. As Secretary Gates has noted, even after factoring in Congress’ additional funding, the extra engine would still require a further investment of $2.4 billion before it could be considered as a viable extra engine for the JSF program. The Department does not believe that this cost will ever be recovered in a hypothesized competition or that the funds should be diverted from important defense needs. The current engine is performing well with more than 13,000 ground test and 200 flight test hours.

: The Administration strongly objects to provisions of the billwhich could limit the procurement of the 42 aircraft requested in the President’s FY 2011 Budget. The onerous restrictions impose unacceptable schedule and budget risks on the JSF program. While the Department believes the restructured development schedule is achievable, failure to achieve any one of the criteria would affect the procurement decision with significant impact on unit cost, production ramp, and TACAIR force structure. The Department’s F-35 procurement request is in line with independent manufacturing studies, risk review recommendations, and the FY11 request reflects an optimized production.

Sources in the Senate indicated to me last night that while the House Armed Services Committee put the $485 million for the second engine in its version of the bill, the Senate Armed Services Committee — which is still marking up its chamber’s complementary text — hasn’t included funding for the second engine. Some Democratic congressmen are looking to pass an amendment stripping out the second engine when a floor vote on the House version of the bill begins tomorrow. So it’s possible that Obama won’t have to use his veto for a bill that could include a long-desired priority of the Democratic base. (For the record, neither version of the bill contains the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” amendments right now, so that’s why Obama doesn’t mention it in his statement.)

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