Future of F-22 far from settled

New fighter plane's doubters in Congress might relent on cuts

July 26, 1999|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With the doors closed and only one other congressman in the small room on the first floor of the Capitol, Rep. Jerry Lewis dropped a bomb.

"I recommend the following," Lewis, a Republican from California, told Pennsylvania Democrat John P. Murtha that afternoon last month. "That we go forward with the F-22 in terms of research and development but pause on procurement."

It would mean cutting $1.8 billion from the Air Force's No. 1 new weapon, jeopardizing the $62.7 billion program and sending the military and Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp., the lead contractor, into a near-panic.

Murtha hesitated only a moment, then banged his fist on the table. "By God," he said, "let's do it."

Three weeks of orchestrated secrecy after that simple decision culminated late last week as the full House of Representatives approved the cut to the F-22 Raptor.

Though some in Congress have long complained that the program to build the world's most advanced fighter jet was rising in cost and eating up scarce defense dollars needed for other weapons, the F-22 and its promise of 27,000 jobs in 46 states seemed politically secure.

Now, a bill that once would have seemed unthinkable is headed for budget conference in September with the Senate.

While Lewis insists he intends to keep pushing for the cut, he also opened the door last week to negotiation.

Signs appeared that the Senate, which has approved the full $3 billion for the F-22 next year, will not go along with such a dramatic gesture and could restore the program -- at least on a smaller scale.

"I think the sheep's entrails are clearly on the ground. It's quite clear they're going to save the F-22," said a Senate staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The staffer said Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, would not let the program end. Stevens could not be reached for comment but was quoted last week defending the F-22.

Deadline for builder urged

Sen. John McCain, an influential member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a Republican presidential candidate, said that though he shares concern about the cost of the F-22, he was dismayed by the House vote to stop building the plane.

"I would give [contractors] a very tough regime to meet and a date certain [for delivery] rather than just kill it off," McCain said.

But Lewis insists he is not aiming to kill the plane, only to slow the Air Force's headlong rush to build it.

Lewis took over in January as chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, which controls defense spending, and said that as he began researching his new job, he quickly focused on the F-22 as an unaffordable sore spot.

A series of articles last week in The Sun outlined the troubled history of the F-22, including how the Air Force sold the program to Congress in the mid-1980s with the lure of a bargain price that it knew was unrealistic.

The series also explained how the cost of a program that has been touted as setting a new standard for Pentagon efficiency has at least doubled, and how the Air Force is pushing to commit to the F-22 with only about 4 percent of its flight-testing complete. While the military says the F-22 will provide an unprecedented combination of speed, stealth, agility and advanced electronics, many of its most crucial aspects remain unproved.

Three projects at once

The Air Force and Lockheed Martin declined to respond to those issues last week, and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen was unavailable for comment. But Lewis said he has included the articles in an information packet for Cohen and has distributed them widely on Capitol Hill.

The congressman said the central problem is that the F-22 is just one of three types of fighter planes the Pentagon is trying to build. Combined, the programs could cost $340 billion -- an amount that many in Congress have long complained is unaffordable.

If Congress could cut one of those programs, "you could save $40 billion to $60 billion and still end up with the finest fighter force in the entire world," Lewis said.

Of the three planes, the Navy's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is the furthest along. Most of its testing is complete and production of the Boeing Co.-built plane is under way. "It was hard to back off of that program," Lewis said.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Joint Strike Fighter, or JSF -- a small, versatile plane intended as a workhorse for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. Lockheed Martin and Boeing are competing for that contract and finalizing designs.

"The JSF is, for all intents and purposes, our plane for the future," Lewis said. "But it's too early in that program."

F-22 funding diverted

That leaves the F-22. The Pentagon decided in December to buy the first two production models for $571 million, a point at which big weapons systems almost never are canceled. Lewis said he realized that action had to come immediately to have any hope of getting the Air Force to slow down and rethink the future.

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