F-22 has star spangled debut Lockheed jet lauded, but will fly in skies filled with budget cutters' flak

April 10, 1997|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

MARIETTA, Ga. -- Laser lights swept the room, white-hatted factory workers marched and clapped in rhythm, and Lee Greenwood himself sang "Proud to be an American" yesterday, as Lockheed Martin Corp. unveiled and defended the very first F-22 fighter plane.

The 90-minute spectacle of patriotism and industrial force at the Bethesda-based company's Aeronautical Systems plant outside Atlanta was a full-throated pre-emptive strike for a defense program taking fire from budget cutters in Congress.

At roughly $80 billion, the F-22 program is the focal point in a debate about whether the nation can afford the Pentagon's ambitious plans to modernize combat aviation.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Georgia Republican whose home district abuts the Marietta plant, made it clear at the ceremonies yesterday that he supports the F-22.

'No pilot whose life will be in danger would approve of a strategy which, in order to be cheap now, costs us the lives of courageous Americans at a later date," Gingrich told the crowd of some 2,500 media, politicians and employees.

Asked after the ceremony if he thought that Congress would follow through on recent suggestions that the Air Force buy fewer than the 438 planes it wants, Gingrich snapped, "I think we'll buy more than that by the time we're done."

The program is at a particularly vulnerable stage. Recent Pentagon reviews have flagged the F-22 for potential cost overruns, and Lockheed Martin has worked with the Air Force to formulate plans to hold down expenses.

Meanwhile, the military is undergoing a Quadrennial Force Review that Gen. Ronald Fogleman, the Air Force chief of staff, said yesterday includes a scenario in which the F-22 is terminated.

The Pentagon also wants to pursue other fighter programs at a cost of more than $350 billion. But Fogleman and other Air Force brass say the F-22 is their top priority.

President Clinton, in a letter read during the ceremony by Sen. Max Cleland, a Georgia Democrat, called the program "the catalyst for a revolution in air power" and "a major milestone in the defense of our nation."

What's more, the program is vital to a nationwide constituency of aerospace companies. About 1,150 subcontractors in 46 states and Puerto Rico take up 70 pages in the F-22 media guide.

About 15,000 jobs are tied to the program, including a total of 2,600 at Lockheed Martin's plants in Marietta and in Fort Worth, Texas.

Boeing Co. builds one-third of the planes, Pratt & Whitney builds the engines and the Linthicum division of Northrop Grumman builds the radars. That kind of economic stake explains why Lockheed Martin spent a full year planning yesterday's Broadway revue of a rollout ceremony.

"The very potency of the F-22 troubles both our potential adversaries and our critics," company Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Norman R. Augustine told a crowd whipped into near-painful anticipation by the music, lights and pomp.

Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Sector President Mickey Blackwell called it "goose bump time." The plane sat behind a black curtain in a corner of the 3.5-million-square-foot Building B-1, where it was assembled. Air Force honor guards escorted dignitaries down the center aisle, to the strains of a recorded fanfare.

Giant video screens on either side of the cloaked plane showed montages of rippling American flags, Olympic moments, company executives and the F-22 logo.

Speakers, from Augustine to Secretary of the Air Force Sheila Widnall to a good chunk of the Georgia congressional delegation, extolled the "historic event," the "critical milestone," the "great day for America."

A pair of singers performed a loudly patriotic song composed for the occasion, which trumpeted the name bestowed on plane No. 1, "The Spirit of America."

After nearly 90 minutes, lasers sliced through piped-in smoke as the fanfare built and then the black curtain rose to reveal the pale gray plane before a glittering galaxy of tiny lights.

The crowd cheered, whistled, stood on seats to get a better look at what even critics acknowledge to be a revolutionary aircraft, officially designated the Raptor.

In a sense, the F-22 is the last old-fashioned defense program. Unlike the trendy Joint Strike Fighter, the F-22 was designed for performance first and economy second.

It is designed as a true superweapon. The plane it is intended to replace, the F-15, offered what military strategists call air superiority -- an edge in a dogfight. The F-22 is designed for air dominance -- total command of the skies.

It will do this, the Air Force and Lockheed Martin say, through an unprecedented combination of stealth, speed and electronic wizardry.

One of the costliest single facets of the plane is its suite of ultra-advanced avionics, the radars and sensors that guide it through hostile territory. Incorporating 1.5 million lines of code on the equivalent of nearly 100 personal computers, the avionics amount to about one-fourth of the plane's cost.

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