F-22 production OK sought before Bush takes office

Approval would improve Lockheed jet's chances

January 07, 2001|By BLOOMBERG NEWS

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Air Force and Lockheed Martin Corp. are pressing to complete testing of the F-22 jet fighter so that the Pentagon can authorize production of the first 10 aircraft before the new administration takes office Jan. 20.

Top aides to President-elect George W. Bush have said they want to review all tactical aircraft programs, including the F-22.

Winning the $2.1 billion production contract for the F-22 before that review begins would signify financial and political support for the program - which ultimately is worth at least $37.9 billion - and make it less prone to major cuts, analysts say.

The Air Force appears to be copying the Army, which announced a $4 billion contract in November to General Motors Defense and General Dynamics Corp. for its biggest and most controversial program - the Interim Armored Vehicle, said Byron Callan, a defense analyst for Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc.

"The Air Force can take a page from the Army's playbook: If you've got a program that is highly important, get it nailed down and don't let the program get caught up in a broader policy debate," he said.

"No one really knows the Bush administration's position on the F-22," said Christopher Bolkcom, an aircraft analyst with the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. "Making the initial production decision prior to a change in government could simplify things for Lockheed Martin and the Air Force."

The F-22 would replace the F-15C as the United States' top air-to-air fighter. It would combine the latest electronics and software in an airframe that's intended to make the craft almost invisible to radar.

Each copy of the aircraft, which is scheduled to enter the service in December 2005, is estimated to cost $182 million in inflation-adjusted dollars that include research, production, support and air base construction costs.

Pentagon officials have delayed awarding the initial $2 billion production contract while the Air Force works to complete the last three of 10 required tests.

The Air Force has been trying since Monday to complete the most important test milestone - the first flight of the F-22's complex avionics that operate and integrate its radar, communications, navigation and weapons systems. The flight at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., has been delayed by flaws unrelated to the avionics.

The Air Force and Lockheed also must test two other aircraft to demonstrate other flight aspects of the F-22. These tests should be complete by early next month, said Philip Coyle, the Pentagon's top testing official.

Coyle has recommended delaying the contract award indefinitely. Overall the F-22 testing program has slipped at least nine months and doesn't justify buying more aircraft at this point, he stated in a report Dec. 20.

"The F-22 flight test program has fallen considerably behind schedule again this year," Coyle wrote in his five-page report. "There is no reason to authorize low-rate initial production at this time and some justification not to."

Only about 40 percent of planned testing has been accomplished, he wrote. The testing has been beset by such failures as cracks in the plane's canopy, peeling wing panels and faulty cockpit air conditioning.

Coyle acknowledged that much of the testing to date has gone well, especially of the avionics hardware and software needed to fly the aircraft.

"Although we have not conducted the number of flight-test hours originally planned, meeting these criteria means the aircraft satisfies all the design and performance characteristics necessary to start initial production," said Gen. Michael E. Ryan, the Air Force chief of staff, in a statement.

"If the F-22 is not ready for initial production, as Coyle's recent memo suggests, then a premature decision could hurt the program in the long term," Bolkcom said.

A Bush aircraft review likely would focus on the F-22's long-term production costs, he said. Pentagon cost analysts say that cost is running $9 billion over the $37.9 billion cap set by Congress.

Even with Coyle's report and a tactical aircraft review, there's no chance the F-22 will be canceled, said Loren Thompson, the vice president of the Lexington Institute, a pro-defense think tank in Washington that supports the aircraft.

"I think there is `zero' chance that the Bush administration will walk away from the F-22 because it is the only stealth air superiority fighter the country has."

Thompson noted that both Vice President-elect Dick Cheney and Donald H. Rumsfeld, the defense secretary nominee, signed a statement along with five other retired defense secretaries in April 1998 expressing strong support for the aircraft.

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