(Adds Schwartz not keen on F-22 export version)
By Jim Wolf
WASHINGTON, Feb 17 (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force has concluded it needs more Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) F-22 Raptor fighter jets than have been ordered so far, but fewer than it previously sought, the service’s top uniformed officer said on Tuesday.
Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff, said he would not dispute a characterization that over the coming three years the service was seeking to add 60 of the premier fighter jets to the 183 now on order, for a total of 243.
The revised request would be for a fleet totaling fewer than 381 Raptors, the previous Air Force goal, Schwartz told reporters, without disclosing the new number.
The Air Force once sought to buy as many as 750 F-22s, which it reckoned cost about $142 million apiece in fiscal 2008, not including development costs.
The revised requirement is “driven by analysis as opposed to some other formulation,” Schwartz said. “And I think it will withstand scrutiny.”
The administration must make critical decisions about the F-22 by about March 1 or Lockheed Martin says it will start phasing out the production line, threatening tens of thousands of jobs during the current recession.
Schwartz said he expects to present the Air Force’s new F-22 analysis to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates within a few weeks. He said the analysis did not factor in jobs, which he called the responsibility of other U.S. officials.
Pressed on why the Air Force was giving up on the 381 F-22s it had long stated it needed to make sure it could dominate the skies from Day One of any future major conflict, Schwartz spoke of going from a “low risk” to a “moderate risk” number.
“And there are few things in our armed forces that we have, you know, a low-risk posture, simply because of the overall demands across the force,” he said.
Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon’s No. 1 supplier by sales, said, “We’re encouraged to read that based on an analysis of needs, the Air Force wants to purchase additional F-22s beyond the current 183...”
“We stand ready to work with the Air Force and (Department of Defense) ... whatever the final number is determined to be,” said Sam Grizzle, a Lockheed spokesman.
He said some suppliers had already been notified that Lockheed would start shutdown activities on March 1 unless President Barack Obama “certifies that continued production of the F-22 is in the national interest.”
To date, 135 Raptors have been delivered to the Air Force. Lockheed says more than 95,000 Americans owe their jobs to the F-22 program.
Gates and other Pentagon holdovers from the administration of the previous president, George W. Bush, have resisted buying more F-22s. Instead, they have favored the less costly F-35 Joint Strike Fighter being developed by Lockheed with eight foreign partners: Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway.
Schwartz made clear the Air Force was prepared to sacrifice on other, unspecified weapons acquisition priorities in exchange for funding for more than 183 F-22s.
“Our basic approach is if we want something, we’re going to pay for it,” he said.
Schwartz showed scant interest in any effort to reverse a ban on F-22 exports mandated by Congress to keep its advanced radar-evasion and other capabilities in U.S. hands alone.
Referring to costs related to developing an export version, he said: “I don’t see that as in the cards right now.”
Japan, Australia and Israel have shown interest in buying the F-22 if it were for available for sale to them. (Editing by John Wallace, Phil Berlowitz)