In a last-ditch bid to keep the F136 combat engine alive following cancellation by the U.S. Defense Department, General Electric and Rolls-Royce are developing a plan to convert the development effort into a self-funded demonstrator for the U.S. Air Force’s long range bomber as well as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The emerging plan follows a decision by Rolls-Royce on April 29 to commit internal funds to continuing work on the F136, which is 80% complete with six development engines tested. Although expected to be funded at a much reduced rate of around $100 million per year compared to $480 million at its government-funded peak, the program would be supported 60% by GE and 40% by Rolls-Royce.

A GE-Rolls Fighter Engine Team spokesman says, despite the inevitable slowdown in the pace of development because of reduced funding, ongoing delays to the JSF mean it will still be enough to enable competition with Pratt & Whitney’s F135 baseline engine on later production lots 8/9 of Lockheed Martin’s F-35.

However, following the April 25 contract termination by the Defense Department, the success of the plan is contingent on congressional support to enable continued use of the development engines, all of which are U.S. government property. The GE-Rolls Fighter Engine Team says more than $200 million in F136 hardware is located in 17 facilities, including nine engines under various stages of assembly. All F136 activity ceased following a stop work order issued on March 24 by Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Ashton Carter.

“We anticipate that next week the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) will be pursuing an effort to get the F136 back into the budget, but put down as a self-funded provision. So we’re asking for access to the hardware, test facilities and the Joint Program Office,” says the GE-Rolls spokesman.

In its planned markup of the defense authorization bill released May 3, the HASC subcommittee setting policy for the air and land forces would also hold money for “performance improvements” to the F135 hostage unless the Pentagon would make money available to two engines for the next-generation fighter jet. The bill would narrowly define those improvements to target plans under way at Pratt & Whitney to increase vertical landing thrust with the Marines’ short-takeoff and vertical landing variant (Stovl).

It is not surprising that the HASC, which has long backed an ongoing competition, would try to keep the program alive. But since Congress has already voted to de-fund the engine, it would be a feat if the language remains in the bill that eventually passes in both the House and Senate. However, GE-Rolls believes that self-funding, plus growing congressional interest in guaranteeing an engine competition for the bomber element of the Air Force’s emerging Long Range Strike family, will provide an additional incentive.

The subcommittee is scheduled to approve the markup on May 4. The following day, HASC chairman Buck McKeon is expected to hold a press conference to talk about acquisition reform and to likely discuss the self-funded F136 development initiative for fiscal 2011 and fiscal 2012.