WASHINGTON – Rep.
Duncan Hunter yesterday defended his role in helping steer
tens of millions of dollars to a La Jolla-based aerospace
firm to develop a military jet the Pentagon did not want.
HOWARD LIPIN / Union-Tribune
The DP-2, an experimental aircraft developed by La
Jolla-based duPont Aerospace, is kept on a platform
in an aircraft parking area at Gillespie Field in El
The Alpine Republican aggressively supported the
program over two decades even though the Pentagon
repeatedly questioned the jet's feasibility and lambasted
the contractor's work.
Hunter has received $36,000 in campaign contributions
from duPont Aerospace, which began receiving congressional
funding for the aircraft in 1988. Hunter had been chairman
of the Armed Services Committee before Democrats gained
control of the House this year. He is running for the 2008
Republican presidential nomination.
DuPont has long promised that the plane, the DP-2, will
have the ability to take off and land vertically, fly
faster and farther and carry more troops than aircraft now
used for similar tasks. For just as long, military
officials have said it would never work as envisioned.
Prototypes have barely gotten off the ground in hover
tests and suffered damage from “hard landings” and other
Hunter, defending his support for the program yesterday
before the House Science and Technology Committee's
investigations and oversight subcommittee, said the DP-2
“represents potential leap-ahead technology to support our
Marines and Special Forces. . . . The idea around here
that if the Pentagon doesn't come up with something, that
if the services don't like it, you're not going to build
it, is ridiculous.”
Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C.,
who chaired the hearing, noted that the DP-2 “is still not
operational and has never received a positive technical
review in more than 20 years. Congress appears to have
permitted the DP-2 program to become a hobby, not a
serious research project.”
The aircraft has received $63 million in taxpayer funds
– entirely through earmarked congressional spending –
despite a series of Pentagon and NASA studies that from
the beginning found fault with the project. Earmarks are
line items inserted into congressional spending bills at
the request of individual congressmen without public
debate, discussion or disclosure.
At the hearing, Hunter gave no ground defending his use
of earmarks to support a program that the Pentagon didn't
think would work, saying earmarks play a vital role in
research and development projects.
“A lot of them fail, but a few of them break through,
and the ones that break through prove of great value,”
said Hunter, who has served 26 years on the House Armed
Services Committee and has sponsored earmarks for duPont
and many other San Diego-based defense contractors.
Hunter's support of the DP-2 has thrust him into the
center of the debate about earmarks, which congressmen
sponsor to fund everything from roads and museums in their
districts to defense contracts that can provide hundreds
of jobs for constituents.
ABC News reported Monday that duPont provided $36,000
in campaign contributions to Hunter and $18,000 to
Christopher Cox, a former Republican congressman from
Newport Beach who once worked for duPont and is now
chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Cox now says the project should have been abandoned.
“What I supported was doing the testing to determine
whether it could fly. As soon as it failed to meet the
test criteria, the plane should have been abandoned,” Cox
In an interview before yesterday's hearing, Hunter
called the ABC report “a cheap shot” and said the duPont
campaign contributions had nothing to do with his support
for the program. He noted that he has previously supported
cuts for programs of two major contributors: General
Dynamics and Lockheed.
“I do what I think is right for the country,” Hunter
It was the abuse of the earmarking process that led to
the imprisonment of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a
onetime House Appropriations Committee member and Rancho
Santa Fe Republican who admitted taking more than $2.4
million in bribes in return for directing federal work to
Cunningham is serving an eight-year, four-month term in
federal prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy and
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a member of the House Science
and Technology Committee, also defended earmarks for the
aircraft, including two that he sponsored. He also hailed
duPont President Tony duPont as “a respected engineer” and
“When we come to the point where we don't (give)
mavericks and free thinkers the chance to prove their
theories, we're putting a great limitation on what our
potential is for the future, said Rohrabacher,
Nevertheless, a half-dozen aerospace engineers and
other experts who testified before the subcommittee
yesterday expressed skepticism that duPont could deliver
on its research. They also accused the company of
Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. Michael Tremper, who
evaluated the DP-2 program for the Defense Contract
Management Agency, said that in 2003 it was found to be
deficient “in virtually all evaluated aspects of the
The consensus of the expert witnesses was that the
aircraft was nowhere near delivering on the promises cited
by duPont and its congressional supporters.
“It's a pipe dream,” said John Eney, an aerospace
engineer who led a Navy team that evaluated the project in
According to a background report provided by the
subcommittee, two separate DP-2 prototypes have “suffered
four mishaps” over the last four years. In 2003, during a
controlled hover test at Gillespie Field in El Cajon,
where duPont keeps the DP-2, the report said the “aircraft
had a 'hard landing' and suffered significant damage.”
In a November 2004 test, the plane suffered structure
failure “due to engineering deficiencies,” the report
said, citing a NASA review. A pilot was in the cockpit at
the time – a violation of safety protocols established for
the test. As the cabin filled with hot exhaust and
composite dust, the pilot was forced to escape through a
cabin window because the main door was jammed shut.
The committee report says duPont had plans to make
commercial versions of the aircraft and noted that “no
ejection seats had been planned or installed for the DP-2,
even though it was being developed as a military
Eney yesterday said duPont's plan to give the aircraft
the ability to hover like a helicopter by directing jet
exhaust toward the ground would incinerate or at least
seriously hamper any troops who rappelled out of the
aircraft, as depicted in an artist's rendering.
Hunter “failed to understand the basic physics of this
situation,” he said.
Tony duPont, testifying from San Diego through a video
link, disputed the claim.
He said the jet exhaust would have a low enough
temperature that exposure to it would be “like wading in a