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LYNN

GE plant rallying to preserve F-35 pact

Defense budget omits funding for jet engine

By Kathy McCabe
Globe Staff / March 28, 2010

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Top management and union leaders at General Electric Co.’s aircraft engine plant are on a mission to save funding for the Lynn facility to complete development of an engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the future combat jet for the military.

GE Aviation was awarded a contract 14 years ago to develop a backup engine for the weapons program. Pratt & Whitney, a division of Connecticut-based United Technologies Corp., is building the primary engine. The two companies were to develop engines for the testing phase of the jet that will be used by the Air Force, Navy, and Marines. Starting in 2014, the two engine giants would compete annually to sell engines to the military, according to GE.

But funding for the GE contract is not included in a new Department of Defense budget. Without funds being restored, Pratt & Whitney would be left as the sole supplier of engines for Joint Strike Fighter jets.

GE managers and union leaders in Lynn have launched a full-scale blitz, lobbying Bay State congressmen and senators to restore funding for the GE engine, along with rallying support from workers. At least 1,000 plant workers signed petitions to members of Congress, urging the funding to be restored.

“Competition is necessary,’’ said Jeff Crosby, president of IUE Local 201, GE’s largest union in Lynn. “It would be a smart move instead of giving a noncompete [contract] on a multibillion-dollar order to one company.

“We’re all behind this,’’ Crosby said. “We see this program as critical to supporting jobs of the future.’’

About 500 jobs in Lynn already are tied to the engine development. But thousands more would be lost if the contract is suspended.

“This will have an impact on our plant for the next 30 years,’’ said Maria Deacon, general manager/area executive for the Lynn plant. “If we lose this, we would have nothing to replace it.’’

Defense contracts account for about 60 percent of manufacturing at the Lynn plant. The rest of the work is for small commercial jet engines.

“These are our jobs for the future,’’ Crosby said. “Fighter engines have been part of the employment base here for decades.’’

Still, the backup engine has been criticized as wasteful spending, designed to protect jobs at a time when the Pentagon is under pressure to cut spending. Reports from Washington this month said the program’s cost has nearly doubled since 2001, to as much as $113 million per plane, the Globe and other news outlets reported.

But US Representative John F. Tierney, the Salem Democrat whose district includes the Lynn plant, said competition between engine companies could help lower costs.

“A lot of cost savings are spread out over time,’’ Tierney said in an interview. “What the administration appears to be doing is saving money in the short term. It’s not wise to do that.’’

Since the Joint Strike Fighter will be used across all military branches, competition is also in the best interest of national security, Tierney added.

“With a single engine [supplier], if something goes wrong, you could ground the whole fleet. That’s absurd,’’ he said. “There are many good reasons to move forward.’’

Senator John F. Kerry said funding the GE contract would spur competition. “The Joint Strike Fighter costs a lot and the costs keep going up, and the administration should use the alternate engine to increase competition and drive down those costs,’’ Kerry said in a prepared statement.

GE Aviation is currently in partnership with Rolls-Royce Indiana to develop the backup engine for the program. Research and development is done mostly at GE Aviation headquarters in Evendale, Ohio. Parts are made at GE in Lynn and at Rolls-Royce facilities, according to Rick Kennedy, a GE Aviation spokesman.

“People think of this only as a backup engine, ’’ said Kennedy. “But by 2014, we’ll be in head-to-head competition with Pratt & Whitney. The government will decide, at that point, how many planes they would want to buy with a GE [engine] or Pratt & Whitney.’’

Funding for the GE contract has been left out of past defense spending bills, only to be restored by Congress. But now GE is fighting for funding without two of its biggest allies, the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy and the late US Representative John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who was chairman of the Defense Appropriations Committee. Both died in the last year.

The government has spent more than $3 billion to develop the GE engine, which is about 80 percent complete. About $1 billion more is needed to finish development, GE says.

“We’re almost done,’’ said Kennedy. “To stop us now would be like taking $3 billion and flushing it down the toilet.’’

Kathy McCabe can be reached at kmccabe@globe.com.