Optimism, not deceit, beset F-22

Air Force general hopes to save ailing fighter jet

August 15, 1999|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

Military officers have sugar-coated problems on the F-22 fighter plane program out of a can-do optimism, not with an intent to deceive, the Air Force's top general for acquisitions said in an interview.

But as Lt. Gen. Gregory S. Martin fights to save the F-22 from a $1.8 billion budget cut passed July 22 by the House of Representatives, he faces what some say is an Air Force credibility problem.

"My impression from staffers I've talked to is that among the services, the Air Force at present has probably the lowest credibility, and it's altogether because of the way they've handled the cost growth in the F-22 program," said Bert Cooper, a military aircraft expert with the Congressional Research Service.

The situation is frustrating and perplexing to Martin, who said Air Force officers who have worked to keep the $62.7 billion program alive over the years were merely "aggressive" and "proud."

"Whenever possible, they will put their best foot forward and the best light on the program, even if it has problems," said Martin, who was responding to a series of articles about the F-22 Raptor published July 18 to 20 in The Sun.

A central point of the series was that the Air Force made deceptive claims to Congress in a rush to acquire the coveted F-22, beginning in the mid-1980s when it promised that the plane could be built for $35 million a copy even though the service knew that figure was unrealistic.

Model program planned

Created as the model for how the Pentagon can reform its business practices, the Lockheed Martin Corp. F-22 has -- after artificially low target prices, program changes, congressional cuts and technical hang-ups -- emerged as the most expensive fighter plane ever built. Already double its initial estimated total cost, the program this year identified close to $1 billion in further excess expenses.

Pentagon budget analysts, the Congressional Budget Office and the General Accounting Office all expect costs to balloon even higher -- as much as $7 billion higher, by some estimates.

Meanwhile, the Air Force has been relentlessly cheerful about its top-priority weapon, insisting that it will meet all cost and performance goals.

The House Appropriations Committee finally called a timeout last month, urging a pause before buying the next six planes so the Air Force can take stock of more immediate needs such as tankers, transport planes and pilot retention.

Many observers predict the Senate will restore some money to the program when Congress returns from recess next month. The Air Force and Lockheed Martin are lobbying hard -- holding classified briefings and arranging trips for politicians to visit fighter pilots and the Georgia factory where the F-22 undergoes final assembly.

Marshaling support

Martin said the service is working with the Air Force Association, prominent officers in the field and other "friends of the Air Force" to rally support for the plane, which he called essential for future military dominance.

But the trickiest issue is that of credibility. Newspapers across the country -- including the New York Times, USA Today, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Dayton (Ohio) Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Chicago Tribune -- have written editorials challenging the Air Force's claims that the F-22 is both affordable and necessary.

One congressional staffer friendly to the program acknowledged that lawmakers believe the Air Force's "level of commitment can have a tendency to have people skew their numbers on purpose."

Even the most recent issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology -- widely respected as a no-frills chronicler of Air Force technology -- notes that "some lawmakers are unabashed about their distrust of the Air Force."

The `party line'

Martin took pains to explain a military culture that he said might be misinterpreted by outsiders. Faced with political concerns over cost as well as the typical technical glitches of any leading-edge program, it is human nature, he said, for officers to want to put out a positive message.

"Let me just give you an example. You go spend a lot of money on a brand new car, and somebody asks you how you like it. Unless it's a real lemon, I bet you'll say you like it. Because you don't want someone to think that you spent a lot of money on a product that's no good," Martin said.

In the case of the F-22, the Air Force promised Congress as late as 1988 that it was "committed to adhering to" the cost goal of $35 million per plane. In truth, an Air Force study from 1985 showed that a tough but realistic goal would be $45 million per plane, and some program officials believed $50 million could be a stretch, given all the technology being piled into the effort.

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