Clinton defends F-22 project

No money for fighters in bill up for vote in House today

July 22, 1999|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton and the Air Force defended the F-22 Raptor fighter plane yesterday amid growing signs that the House of Representatives is poised to make a dramatic cut in the $62.7 billion program.

The House is scheduled to take up a $267 billion defense spending bill today that includes no money for further purchases of the F-22, which is being developed by Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp.

The Air Force and contractors have warned that cutting $1.8 billion requested for buying six of the planes next year will amount to a death sentence for the program.

"I think it would be a mistake to abandon the project," President Clinton said yesterday when asked about the F-22 during a wide-ranging news conference. "I think it has real potential to add to our national defense. I have always supported it, and I hope that it will be preserved."

Clinton acknowledged limits to his support, though. Asked if he would favor buying the F-22 if it meant scrimping on other weapons systems or on military pay, the president wavered.

"Well, I don't think we should sacrifice the pay for our service personnel," he said, adding that "people are still the most important part of our military."

But Clinton suggested that Congress has added superfluous programs to the defense budget that could be trimmed to maintain F-22 funding.

During a hearing yesterday in the House Rules Committee, though, Republicans and Democrats alike seemed to embrace the possibility of cutting the F-22.

"This is probably one of the most dramatic overhauls we've faced in a long time. I want to congratulate you on an excellent and very creative work product," Rules chairman David Dreier, a California Republican, said to fellow California Republican Jerry Lewis and Pennsylvania Democrat John P. Murtha, the two congressmen who have led the effort to redirect F-22 money into other Air Force needs.

`Difficult choices'

"Thank you for making the difficult choices," agreed Tony P. Hall, an Ohio Democrat.

Lewis referred the committee to a series of articles about the F-22 published this week in The Sun, noting that the articles illustrate how the Air Force pitched the plane in the mid-1980s as having a bargain price of $35 million. Total public investment now stands at more than $184 million per plane, and Lewis said he believes that figure will climb.

He cited several other issues detailed in the series, including the lack of a military threat to compete with the plane, the Pentagon's risky decision to buy the F-22 with only 4 percent of its flight-testing complete and the fact that the plane's complex electronics system is unproven.

"The fact is, this is a program that's in trouble," he said.

Lewis heads a defense spending subcommittee that shocked the Air Force last week by voting to take $1.8 billion that had been intended for buying six F-22s and use the money to buy eight F-15 fighter planes, five F-16s, eight KC-130J tankers and one Joint STARS surveillance plane. Another $500 million of the amount would go toward pay raises aimed at keeping pilots in the Air Force.

$20 billion for development

The Pentagon has spent more than $20 billion developing the F-22, and agreed in December to buy the first two production models for $571 million. The Air Force wants a total of 339 of the planes -- down from original plans for 750. The first combat models are to enter service in 2004.

Lewis and Murtha said yesterday that they do not believe blocking the purchase of the next six planes will kill the program, and pointed out that they preserved $1.2 billion for continuing the development effort next year.

The House Appropriations Committee endorsed the plan on Friday, setting up today's vote of the full House. Lewis said he expects the measure to clear the House and wind up in conference this summer with the Senate, which has approved the full $3 billion the Air Force requested for the F-22.

Senator seeks compromise

While senators are likely to be more cautious about trimming the program, Virginia Republican Sen. John W. Warner, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned Defense Secretary William S. Cohen earlier this week that "we can't be giving you a blank check to buy aircraft." Warner reportedly wants to find a compromise between full funding for the F-22 and the proposed House cut.

Acting Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters said yesterday during a Senate hearing on his appointment as secretary that the House action would effectively end the program by driving expenses to unsustainable heights.

"I fully expect the bill to get voted favorably tomorrow," Peters said. "That doesn't mean it's the end of the battle. We are still working hard with both the House and Senate to try to find a way forward."

Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said yesterday he is opposed to stopping F-22 production.

Test flights conducted as recently as this week, Peters said, have demonstrated that the F-22 is an exceptional plane.

"If you were to take the F-22 out of inventory, we would be looking at a massive change in direction" for the Air Force, he said.

Such a change is exactly what Lewis and others in the House have in mind, arguing that the Air Force has prepared for a vanished, Cold War-like future.

If lead contractor Lockheed Martin complains that it cannot readjust the program to a slower pace, Lewis said, "then maybe we better find someone else."

Wire services contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 7/22/99

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