F-22 fighter jet's future still up in the air
Testing done, but funds face
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON -- The fate of the Air Force's most important weapons program, the F-22 Raptor, remains in limbo even though the fighter has completed the
flight tests required for approval of its initial production.
Lockheed Martin, the primary contractor, was hoping for release soon of $2.1 billion to buy 10 of the most sophisticated, and most expensive,
fighter jets in history. That funding could be the start of a multiyear production of up to 339 Raptors at a total cost of more than $30 billion.
Full production of the F-22 would provide a total of $11.6 billion to 215 major subcontractors and other suppliers in California, a Lockheed Martin
official said. TRW plants in San Diego and El Segundo could receive a total of $5 billion for their part in the program.
But the F-22 funds may be trapped by President Bush's statement that funding decisions on all major defense programs would be delayed until
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld can complete his "top to bottom" review
of military strategy and the required forces and weapons.
A Pentagon spokesman, Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, said Tuesday he would be "hard pressed to see how" the F-22 could be exempted from that mandate.
Quigley could not say how long that review would take, but repeated Rumsfeld's statement that it would be "not days and not years."
He said the restriction on making crucial funding decisions also would affect other major weapons programs that are approaching production
approval, including the Marine Corps' controversial tilt-rotor MV-22 Osprey.
"I think you would be hard pressed . . . to make any significant acquisition decisions for big dollars absent an understanding of where they
fit into the overall picture," Quigley said.
The Osprey production decision, however, is tied up by factors including investigations into the latest fatal accident and the allegations that the
MV-22 training squadron falsified aircraft readiness data, Quigley said.
But the Raptor decision may be more critical because interim funding to keep the program going runs out March 31.
The F-22 was supposed to get production approval last year, but the decision was conditioned on completion of a specified set of flight tests.
Lockheed Martin said the last of the requirements was met Monday when the sixth of the operational test aircraft flew. The other requirements,
including a test of the F-22's radar-evading stealth qualities and a flight
with the full set of mission-critical computer software, were completed by last month, program director Mark Hodge said.
The Raptor is intended to replace the F-15, which has been the Air Force's best air-to-air fighter since the 1970s. Although F-22 critics say the
F-15s remain the best fighters in the world, the proponents note that most
are more than 15 years old and are losing their advantage against the latest fighters produced in Russia and Europe.
Unlike the F-15, the Raptor is designed to be stealthy, allowing it to slip through air defenses. It also has the ability to fly supersonic without
using the fuel-guzzling afterburner and has the most sophisticated electronics and computer systems of any aircraft in the world, Hodge said.
A number of critics, however, argue that there is no existing fighter threat to justify an aircraft that will cost from $68 million to $182
million each, depending on which formula is used.