F-22 jet cruises, but ship is adrift Lockheed Martin wins, loses in budget talks on Capitol Hill

Defense funding

September 25, 1997|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

The radar-evading F-22 fighter plane managed to zip safely past Congressional budget negotiators this week, relieving Lockheed Martin Corp. officials who dreaded further cuts.

But another defense project with Maryland ties -- the Arsenal Ship -- may be headed for the briny deep.

Pentagon officials told budget conferees last month that the Arsenal Ship -- a missile platform -- needed $85 million for next year to stay on track. In the appropriations agreement released yesterday, the program got $35 million.

Navy officials seemed nonplused by the action. A spokesman said only that "the [program] requirement stands and we are exploring options."

The full House and Senate still have to vote on the defense budget, and the companion authorization bill -- which sets policy for spending the money -- is still in House-Senate negotiations.

But the outlook is grim for the three companies hoping to be picked later this year to build a single Arsenal Ship that would be used to demonstrate a host of new technologies.

Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin, the Linthicum division of Northrop Grumman Corp. and General Dynamics of Northern Virginia are competing to build at least the one demonstration ship. Northrop Grumman's team features four other Maryland companies as partners, mostly small firms eager to get a piece of a contract that could lead to future riches.

The vessel would basically be a large platform crammed with 500 launchers operated by remote control.

Congress has bombarded the program all year. Some question the wisdom of creating such a fat target for enemies, some fear that such a vessel would threaten jobs for other types of warships, and some say there's just not enough money for the project.

The Navy responded by changing the name of the program to the Maritime Fire Support Demonstrator and saying it would be used to test technology for the entire next generation of warships.

Top Pentagon officials wrote Congress in August to plead for the program, warning that cutting it could delay Navy fleet development. "It is essential to emerge with at least $85 million in FY 1998 in order to execute the demonstrator ship program," said John W. Douglass, assistant secretary of the Navy, and Larry Lynn, director of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, in the letter.

The conferees' decision to award only $35 million left the companies in limbo.

"It is obviously less funding than we had anticipated, however we will have to await further direction from the Navy," said spokesman Dick Dunne of Northrop Grumman, declining to comment further.

Jay Korman, an analyst with the DFI International defense consulting firm, said the lower amount "is definitely a big blow. It's pretty unsure now whether they can develop a stand-alone ship and test all these technologies they say are so important."

The news was much better for the F-22, which had been targeted by the Senate for a cut of $500 million from the $2.1 billion the Pentagon sought for next year.

The appropriations conferees recommended full funding.

"It's a big relief," said Tom Burbage, Lockheed Martin's F-22 program manager. "You don't ever stop worrying, [but] we're fairly comfortable the appropriators have kind of won the day in terms of funding."

At about $71 million a plane, the F-22 has been a target of budget cutters. Three cutbacks have caused the program to be completely reorganized each time, and Burbage said such processes only make costs go up.

The F-22 is just now coming out of what Burbage said amounts to a fourth restructuring in six years: A Pentagon review team recommended several changes to avoid anticipated cost increases once the planes go into production, and earlier this year, the Clinton administration decided to buy 339 F-22s instead of 438.

That dropped the total cost of buying the planes to $43 billion from $48.3 billion, but Burbage said it still results in an overall higher cost per plane when development costs are included. Yet another cut, he said, would have been devastating -- especially with the program at such a sensitive point, having just completed the first flight on Sept. 7.

That flight had been delayed since May 29 by a series of technical problems that Burbage said were "minor things very typical of any type of development program."

A second test flight last week was cut short by a malfunction in the device that sends performance data to ground monitors. The next day, a third flight was canceled because a warning light indicated a problem with a hydraulic valve in the landing gear.

Burbage said investigators found no problem with the valve, but replaced it anyway. Then the company scrapped the third flight because the valve work would have delayed delivery of the plane to Edwards Air Force Base in California, where the Air Force will begin its flight testing next spring.

Pub Date: 9/25/97

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