UPDATE 2-Pentagon says can ill-afford more top fighter jets

Wed Nov 19, 2008 3:55pm EST

(Adds detail on interim funding, quotes, analyst comment)

By Jim Wolf

WASHINGTON Nov 19 (Reuters) - The U.S. Defense Department told Congress it could ill-afford more top-of-the-line F-22 fighter aircraft than now in the pipeline, partly to protect another Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) fighter, the multinational F-35.

Continued purchases of the radar-evading F-22 could "jeopardize the Department's ability to procure the F-35 in the quantities required to maintain affordability," John Young, the Pentagon's chief arms buyer, told a House of Representatives Armed Services panel on Wednesday.

The Pentagon last week released $50 million in bridge funds to preserve a decision on future F-22 production for the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama. That amount was $140 million less than provided by Congress.

The $50 million would serve as a kind of downpayment on four more F-22s. The Pentagon plans to seek these planes in a supplemental war budget to offset combat losses, keeping Lockheed's production line from starting to shut.

The F-22 is designed to dominate enemy airspace at the start of battle and clear the way for other warplanes, including the F-35. A total of 183 F-22s have been delivered to the U.S. Air Force or are on order -- the total sought by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The F-35 is a family of radar-evading fighters that would be less expensive, once production ramps up, than the higher-performance F-22. A showcase of international cooperation, the F-35 was developed with eight foreign partners: Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway.

"The Department faces many funding challenges and an investment that merely adds redundancy, at a high cost, to an already robust force risks the ability to meet the department's needs in other equally important mission areas," Young said in prepared testimony to the air and land forces subcommittee.

Young testified that adding 20 F-22s in fiscal 2010, consistent with funds provided by Congress for items that would have to be bought long in advance, would cost more than $3 billion. Even without this, he said, the Air Force "faced considerable pressures in submitting a balanced budget" to the Pentagon for the coming year.

The issue of advance procurement is urgent because the production line must start shutting down early next year unless Obama opts to buy another batch or keeps options open for doing so.

Subcommittee Chairman Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat from Hawaii, said putting down only $50 million to keep the supply line open could boost the F-22 program cost up to $500 million if a decision were ultimately made to buy 20 more in March.

Young cautioned against discussing potential costs in public.

Abercrombie cited Air Force estimates as showing that the F-22 would cost $153 million per plane in fiscal 2010 for 20 more if a deal were sealed with Lockheed without delay.

In this case, the F-22s could be bought for $50 million less per plane than the Air Force's F-35 model in 2010, which work out to $203 million apiece before economies of scale kick in, according to the preliminary Air Force figures released by the subcommittee.

Lockheed produces the F-22 aircraft in partnership with Boeing Co (BA.N) and United Technologies Corp's (UTX.N) Pratt & Whitney, which builds its dual F-119 engines.

In June, Gates ousted the Air Force's top military and civilian leaders amid a tug-of-war over funds for the F-22, which he considers ill-suited for post-Cold War conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan.

The question for Obama boils down to how to equip for, and otherwise hedge against, foes like Iran and North Korea on the one hand, and powerful potential adversaries like Russia and China on the other.

"If the incoming administration is focused on China and Russia, that will require fundamentally different investments than counterinsurgencies," including more F-22s, said Philip Finnegan, an analyst at Teal Group, a Virginia aerospace consultancy. (Reporting by Jim Wolf; editing by Tim Dobbyn)

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