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thedrifter
05-14-08, 08:43 AM
Enough F's to make your tail spin
By: Jen DiMascio
May 14, 2008 08:06 AM EST

The F-22 Raptor, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the F-18 Super Hornet, the F-15 Eagle and the F-16 Fighting Falcon — there are enough F’s to make your head spin.

All those fighter jets will also be a real headache for the next administration, which will have to manage an aging, dwindling fleet with less money across the Air Force, Navy and Marines.

This week, the House Armed Services Committee is set to authorize money for new F-22s, a move that would allow the next administration to decide whether to continue the program. But the committees that decide the appropriations for it have yet to weigh in. And that sets up a fight in the lobbying world over whether to continue pursuing expensive advanced fighter jets or to continue buying cheaper, older-model fighters.

Congress may keep the F-22s on life support until a new president is sworn in. But the backers of Lockheed Martin, which makes the F-22 Raptor in Georgia, are lined up to sell it in the face of stiff opposition from Sen. Kit Bond, a Republican appropriator representing Boeing’s back yard in St. Louis, Mo., where the company’s defense operations are headquartered.

Boeing builds the F-15, and Lockheed builds the F-16, aircraft the Air Force has been trying to mothball for years. It also builds the older F/A-18 for the Navy, and the company wants the business so badly it has offered a lower price to extend the latest buy.

This is a critical time for the F-22. Lockheed needs contracts by this November to continue production, given that next year is the last year in a three-year contract for 60 planes. Once the current contract is filled, the Air Force will have 183 F-22s. But it wants 381, at least unofficially. Regardless of what Congress decides, it needs to pony up about half a billion dollars — either to close the F-22 Raptor production line or keep it going.

The Georgia delegation, a gaggle of retired Air Force generals and Lockheed have embarked on a Save the Raptor movement to promote the need for and the merits of “fifth-generation fighters.” F-22 advocates want to keep the F-22 line open in 2010 so the next administration can buy at least 20 aircraft and then continue to push for as many as 200.

Officially, the Air Force opposes buying more of even the most advanced “fourth-generation fighters” — the F-15 and the F-16. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee there is no value in continuing to buy the F-15 and the F-16, because they’re not as technically advanced as the Air Force’s new team of fighters, the F-22 and the F-35.

Former Air Force generals describe the F-22 as an insurance policy that deters attacks from China, among other countries, and is not as vulnerable as older aircraft to surface-to-air missiles that may proliferate among “nonstate actors.”

The F-22 provides the Air Force with the maneuverability to evade radar so it can “kick down the door” and be followed by the longer-range F-35, said retired Air Force Gen. Ronald E. Keys. The Air Force needs at least 381 of the aircraft to have enough for training, testing and handling trouble spots without taking on extra risk, he said.


“It’s all about money, though,” Keys said, adding that the nation has enough money to invest in the capability, but it needs to manufacture new planes in sufficient quantities and retire old planes to offset the current burdensome maintenance costs leeching dollars from the Air Force.

That means giving the Air Force more money overall, something retired Air Force Gen. Richard E. Hawley says the administration has not done.

“They aren’t willing to ask the Congress to pay for both the war and the recapitalization of the armed forces,” Hawley said. “I’m not sure that if the administration took the argument to Congress that says the nation has to pay for both.”

Part of the problem is that the Air Force buys the F-22 in small numbers, which drives up the cost.

“It’s a death spiral,” Hawley said, adding that the same thing happened to the B-2 bomber. “Unless we bite the bullet, we will subject ourselves to unpleasant times. And it costs money. Insurance isn’t cheap.”

Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), who represents the district where Lockheed’s F-22 production is based, will be leading the fight in the House to line up funding for 20 F-22s in 2010 and to keep the production line open down the road.

Gingrey expects to receive support in the House but isn’t so sure about the Senate. So he’s enlisting the help of a fellow Georgia Republican, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, to key on lead senators, particularly Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, and its ranking Republican, Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska.

The Georgia delegation wants money for advance procurement to allow the next administration to continue the program. “If we had ‘either/or’ language and let the line shut down, the next administration wouldn’t have a choice,” Gingrey said.

The Bush administration isn’t so keen on the Save the Raptor plan. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his top deputy, Gordon England, have said publicly that the Air Force should buy only 183 F-22s. But the administration’s budget did not address the issue, providing neither funding to stop production nor to buy parts for new aircraft.

Bond said the fleet could benefit from buying in bulk fighter jets that are already flying — the Boeing-made F-15 and the F-16. “I want to fix the problem instead of kick the can down the road,” he said.

From Bond’s perspective, the Air Force has a choice to offset shortfalls in the fleet. Though the F-35 is billed as a low-cost plane, it’s only in the beginning stages of production, and its price could rise if the quantity of planes purchased by the U.S. military and partner nations declines. Lockheed is the prime contractor for the F-35, though Northrup Grumman and BAE Systems are major subcontractors.

In addition, the Air National Guard’s fleet is eroding, Bond said, noting that as much as 80 percent of it will be depleted within eight years.

He and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), both members of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee and leaders of the National Guard Caucus, sent a letter to Air Force leaders, asserting that the shortage threatens the Guard’s ability to perform critical homeland security air patrols.

According to Boeing’s vice president for the F-15 program, Mark Bass, the company is making advanced F-15e-model aircraft for Singapore and could, with other international orders, keep production going if the United States wanted to restart production.

That’s why Bond is hoping the Air Force will follow the lead of the Navy — which is continuing to buy the F/A-18 aircraft — with multiyear orders for the F-15e and the F-16.

“If they don’t see the light, maybe they’ll feel the heat,” Bond said.

Ellie