Will Congress save F-22 from death spiral?

House-Senate panel to decide if fighter flies or serves to build 2d jet

Two have different roles

September 08, 1999|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

Part of what made the "Blair Witch Project" so scary was that moviegoers never saw whatever was stalking those kids through the woods. Lately, Washington and the Pentagon have been using the same technique to raise blood pressure over the military's plan to buy new warplanes.

While budget fights focus on the $62.7 billion F-22 fighter program, the unseen bugaboo making everyone nervous is another jet: the Joint Strike Fighter.

Generals warn that terrible things will happen to the Joint Strike Fighter if the nation doesn't also build the F-22. Congressional budget cutters say the Joint Strike Fighter is exactly why we don't need to buy the F-22.

Both sides can use the same project for opposite ends because the Joint Strike Fighter, like the Blair Witch, only exists in people's minds. No real plane has been built yet.

"You put a name on something that has no substance behind it, and all of a sudden it becomes everyone's Holy Grail," said Richard Aboulafia, aircraft expert for the Teal Group.

The concept of the Joint Strike Fighter is broad, because the plane has to serve three agendas. One version of the plane is supposed to be a cheap, versatile fighter for the Air Force; a heavier version will operate from carriers for the Navy, and a third model has to hover and land vertically for the Marines.

The British Royal Navy also wants to buy a few. With a projected total order of about 3,000 planes, the contract to build the Joint Strike Fighter could easily top $250 billion and stand as the biggest Pentagon deal in history.

Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. are competing for the contract, which is to be awarded in 2001, and warn that the loser could wind up shut out of the warplane business.

So this amorphous program, which was a mere research project as recently as four years ago, is a potent factor in the suddenly hot debate about the fate of its more developed sister plane, the F-22.

When the House of Representatives voted in July to deny $1.8 billion for buying the next six F-22s, it left $1.2 billion in the budget for continuing to develop the Lockheed Martin plane. But the House Appropriations Committee stuck a monster caveat on that money, instructing the Air Force to convert the F-22 into nothing more than "an affordable demonstration program" to help in designing the Joint Strike Fighter.

Then Congress went into recess for a month and gets back to work today. The fate of the F-22 was left hanging as the single most contentious defense topic that will face House and Senate budget conferees. Senators had approved full funding for the plane.

The Air Force has scrambled to resurrect the F-22, and it used political judo to flip the Joint Strike Fighter right back at Congress.

The tactic involved three basic arguments that each contain a healthy dose of spin:

Eliminating the F-22 would make the Air Force completely re-evaluate the role of the Joint Strike Fighter.

The F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter are planned to have the same relationship as today's F-15 and F-16 fighter planes. Called a "high-low mix," the idea is for one plane to be a big, powerful air-to-air dogfighter that can wipe out an enemy air force in the first days of a conflict. The F-15 is designed to do that now, and the F-22 is supposed to do it after 2004.

Once the skies are safe and "air dominance" is assured, waves of smaller, more versatile fighters swarm in -- shooting down remaining enemy planes as well as bombing targets on the ground and providing cover for foot soldiers. That would be the F-16 today and the Joint Strike Fighter after 2010.

High-end mission shifted

If the F-22 were canceled, the high-end mission would fall to updated F-15s or simply to the Joint Strike Fighter itself. Generals argue that new European planes are going to be better than the F-15, though upgrades could make up the difference.

The Joint Strike Fighter is not currently designed to be the nation's top dogfighter. It lacks the raw power of the F-22, largely because the Joint Strike Fighter has only one engine, while the F-22 has two.

Besides reducing muscle for maneuvers, the smaller power plant means the Joint Strike Fighter might be unable to run the full suite of electronics planned for the F-22.

But some military experts say those details are beside the point. The post-Cold War world holds no giant foreign air forces, and recent conflicts have not involved significant air-to-air battles, so the traditional high-low mix of planes may be outmoded.

That's why some in Congress say re-evaluating missions is exactly what the Air Force needs to do.

Generals warn that changing the role of the Joint Strike Fighter would lard on technology and drive up cost.

In truth, if the F-22 really does go down in flames in Congress, "There would be no impact on the Joint Strike Fighter today," said Frank Statkus, the program manager for Boeing's version of the new plane.

The long-term impact is unclear.

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