WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon released on Wednesday $50 million in an effort to keep Lockheed Martin Corp's F-22 fighter production line humming until President-elect Barack Obama can decide the fate of the top-of-the-line U.S. warplane.
"These funds provide a bridge to a January decision by the next administration," John Young, the Pentagon's chief weapons buyer, said in clearing the Air Force to buy parts that must be ordered well in advance for four more F-22s.
Congress provided $140 million in the fiscal 2009 defense budget for "long lead" parts for up to 20 F-22s to keep the line open pending a decision by Obama, who will be sworn in as president on January 20.
In releasing only about a third of the congressionally approved funding for advance procurement of such things as titanium bulkheads, Young left it to the next administration to use the rest of the $140 million as it saw fit.
"Industry has indicated that four aircraft of Advance Procurement now, and additional Advance Procurement in January, will bridge the F-22 line with little or no additional cost to the taxpayer if additional F-22s are purchased," he said through Chris Isleib, his spokesman.
Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon's No. 1 supplier by sales, declined to comment on whether Young's approach, formalized in a so-called acquisition defense memorandum, or ADM, would suffice to keep its line open.
"We're now in receipt of the ADM and we're evaluating it," said Tom Jurkowsky, a Lockheed spokesman.
Loren Dealy, a spokeswoman for the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, raised questions about whether the Pentagon's approach went far enough to meet Congress's intent to preserve the line until a final decision can be made on the radar-evading warplane.
"It is not yet clear whether DOD's recent proposal will accomplish this goal," she said in an emailed statement.
Lockheed produces the F-22 in partnership with Boeing Co and United Technologies Corp's Pratt & Whitney, which builds its dual F-119 engines.
Air Force leaders have held that the currently projected fleet of 183 F-22s -- or 187 including the four Young said he would seek in a supplemental war-funding budget -- is too small to guarantee U.S. air supremacy in any future fight with powers like Russia and China.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has raised qualms about buying more F-22s on the ground that they are expensive at $142 million apiece, not including development costs, and not relevant to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Leaders of the House Armed Services Committee said in an October 31 letter to Gates that they wanted to keep the production line intact until at least March 15, 2009.
Failing this, it could cost $500 million to restart, they wrote.
In voicing doubts about the advisability of buying more F-22s, Gates has cited fears of undercutting the cheaper, next-generation, radar-evading F-35, also produced by Lockheed.
The F-35 is "a little over half of the cost of an F-22," Gates told reporters on October 21. "So you can buy more, and (still) have a lot of capability."
Gates ousted the Air Force's top civilian and military leaders in June amid strains over the Air Force push for more F-22s. The Air Force had no immediate comment on Young's decision.
Reporting by Jim Wolf; editing by Tim Dobbyn and Matthew Lewis