House set to vote on $1.8 billion cut in F-22 program

Air Force said to ignore other more pressing needs

July 18, 1999|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

No military program has seemed more politically invincible than the Air Force's F-22 Raptor fighter jet, but suddenly the Lockheed Martin Corp. warplane looks wounded.

This week, the House of Representatives will consider cutting $1.8 billion from next year's defense budget for buying six F-22s. The House Appropriations Committee endorsed the cut Friday, setting up a debate over the future of the program and over the Air Force itself.

"The committee's greatest concern is that the Air Force, because of its fixation on a single solution -- that is, the F-22 -- that they have ignored and indeed almost let fall apart a whole array of [other] significant programs," said Rep. Jerry Lewis, a California Republican who is leading the attack on the plane.

Lewis took over in January as chairman of the subcommittee that handles defense appropriations. On Monday, he stunned the Air Force and the defense industry with his plan to take $1.8 billion from the F-22 and use it to buy F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon fighters, KC-130J tankers and a Joint STARS surveillance plane, as well as investing in programs to retain Air Force pilots.

Military experts at first dismissed the action as a dramatic but futile gesture. After all, Congress had complained for years about the high cost of the $62.7 billion F-22 program, but it had never made more than token cuts.

By the end of the week, though, some had re-evaluated.

"I think the opponents of the program had been somewhat dispirited and almost disenfranchised up to now, but all of a sudden they have a somewhat stealthy way of expressing opposition to the stealth fighter," said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation expert with the Teal Group consulting firm in Fairfax, Va.

What Lewis has done, Aboulafia said, is find a way to get at the F-22 by tapping broader dissatisfaction with the shape of the Air Force. "They had an opportunity, ironically, because of the Kosovo crisis," Aboulafia said.

Lewis mentioned Kosovo, complaining that an Air Force designed to fight two major wars simultaneously had to use 97 percent of its tanker fleet to sustain the action in Yugoslavia. "And they were only dealing with a country the size of Ohio," he said.

That led him to conclude that the Air Force has more pressing needs than the F-22, he said. Lewis has characterized the cut as a "pause" in the effort to build the F-22, noting that $1.2 billion would remain in next year's budget for developing the plane.

Lockheed Martin Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Vance D. Coffman told Lewis last week that such a pause would spell death for the program, but Lewis disagreed.

The Air Force and Lockheed Martin have lobbied feverishly against the action, saying it would lead to an extra $6.5 billion in overhead costs, renegotiated contracts and work delays.

If the cut is supported by the House this week, it would face a higher hurdle when House and Senate conferees iron out budget differences. The Senate has approved full funding of $3 billion for the F-22 for next year.

"My expectation is that the Air Force is burning up the telephone wires; and when they turn on the afterburners, Congress usually melts," said a Senate staffer who asked not to be identified.

The Pentagon has spent roughly $20 billion on the program and has bought the first two production-model planes, a point at which major weapons systems are almost never canceled. The program boasts of supporting 26,000 jobs in 46 states and Puerto Rico.

"There is resounding support throughout the Congress for the F-22," said another Senate staffer who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

On the other hand, the staffer added, "we do have sticker shock on it."

Sun staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 7/18/99

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