Ever since Defense Secretary Robert Gates canned the head of the JSF program, Marine Maj. Gen. David Heinz, Capitol Hill aides have hinted that substantial support remained within the Air Force for a second engine for the Joint Strike Fighter. Now we have proof.
A November 19 letter signed by leaders of the House Armed Services Committee cites testimony by Vice Adm. David Venelet, program executive officer for the JSF program. The letter was sent to Rep. Norm Dicks, chair of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee and asked him to include funding for the F136 in whatever spending measure the House might pass to fund the government once current appropriations run out on Dec. 3.
The letter, first reported by my colleague Jason Sherman at Inside Defense, says: “As you are well aware from testimony to the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Secretary Gates' most senior military advisory and acquisition official on the F-35 program, [Vice] Admiral David Venlet, has stated that he believes in competition in the F-35 engine program.”
It is signed by outgoing HASC chairman, Rep. Ike Skelton, his replacement, Rep. Buck McKeon and four other senior HASC members.
What I find most interesting about this is how Gates will react, especially given the fact that F-35 costs have continued to rise on Venlet's watch. Many people believe Heinz was fired by Gates largely because of his support for the second engine, although Gates cited rising program costs when he made his Feb. 1 announcement.
Here's what Gates said when he fired Heinz: “One cannot absorb the additional costs in this program and the delays without people being held accountable." Nothing has yet leaked out about yesterday's Defense Acquisition Board on the F-35 but all indications are that program costs continue to rise and schedules continue to slip, none of which should be very surprising in this phase of a program like the F-35. Do we follow the logic of Gates' February comments at the time and conclude he will fire Venlet, one of the most senior military leaders to lead a weapons program? Will Gates order Venlet to shut up or to change his publicly stated position?
Finally, let us all congratulate lawmakers and their aides on keeping this letter so quiet for so long. They may well have wanted to keep it quiet for as long as Gates remains in office. General Electric and Rolls Royce, makers of the F136, remain remarkably silent.