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US Air Force seeks about 60 more F-22 fighters
WASHINGTON Dec 10 (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force is seeking to buy about 60 more top-of-the-line Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) F-22 fighter jets, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said on Wednesday, despite Pentagon efforts to end the program.
Adm. Mike Mullen said the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Norton Schwartz, had talked about buying "60 or so" more of the radar-evading "Raptors" beyond the 183 now on order, which would bring the total to 243.
That is far less than the 750 the Air Force once planned to buy and well below the 381 the Air Force more recently has said it needs to guarantee air supremacy. But it is still more than the current administration's cap of 183 in production.
"We're going to work our way through that," Mullen said, citing the Air Force's drive to get 60 more F-22s. "I am concerned that it is such an expensive system."
The F-22, which costs about $142 million apiece in fiscal 2008 not including development costs, is designed to dominate enemy airspace at the start of a war and clear the way for other warplanes, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is also being developed by Lockheed.
The F-35 is a family of radar-evading fighters that Pentagon officials now say will cost about half that of an F-22, once production ramps up. The F-35 is being developed with eight foreign partners: Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway.
Mullen said the U.S. military's future was with the F-35, but cautioned that new weapons systems often ran into schedule delays, which could fuel a need for additional F-22s.
"It's very important we have capability to bridge to that (F-35) system with respect to the broad range of capabilities for the country," Mullen said.
Defense analysts say the Air Force is promoting a plan to buy 60 F-22s under a second, three-year contract with Lockheed that would run through 2012. By one account, the Air Force plan may involve a push for ending a congressional ban on possible F-22 exports. Japan, Australia and Israel have shown interest in acquiring the F-22, designed to be the world's top fighter.
The issue is likely to be hotly contested in Congress and is one of the first items the Obama administration will have to examine. Mullen said President-elect Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates had made it clear the new administration would carefully scrutinize all major weapons programs.
He said he was "obviously discouraged" by rising costs in so many weapons programs and it was clear that cost controls were urgently needed across the military.
Given the world financial crisis, it was imperative for all military services to "squeeze our budgets, to draw in ... where we can," Mullen said.
But Lockheed's F-22 has drawn the ire of the Pentagon's top arms buyer John Young. Last month he criticized the performance of the F-22, saying the fighter jet needs more than $8 billion of upgrades to be made "capable and affordable to operate."
Absent new orders from the incoming Obama administration, Lockheed is due to inform its suppliers of shutdown plans early next year for the F-22 production line.
Congress, keen to maintain jobs linked to the fighter jet, has approved up to $140 million in bridge funds for 20 F-22s to be purchased in fiscal 2010. If Obama's team signs on to continued production by March 1, another $383 million can be spent on parts that require a long time to produce.
Lockheed, the Pentagon's No. 1 supplier in terms of sales, produces the F-22 in partnership with Boeing Co (BA.N) and United Technologies Corp's (UTX.N) Pratt & Whitney, which builds its dual F-119 engines.
(Additional reporting by Jim Wolf and David Morgan; Editing by Bernard Orr)
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