U.S. News

Pentagon says F-22 fate to hang for while longer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A high-stakes decision on the fate of Lockheed Martin Corp’s premier F-22 fighter jet will be made known only with the release of the fiscal 2010 budget likely in April, not by March 1 as had been sought by Congress.

The Obama administration’s plans for the F-22 Raptor, “like all big-dollar programs, and particularly programs facing execution problems ... will not be known until the budget is structured and released,” Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said Monday.

The radar-evading F-22 is the most advanced fighter in the U.S. inventory. It has become an emblem of a debate about hedging for large-scale wars versus fighting guerrillas in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and a bone of contention as the government looks to find funding for massive stimulus programs to revive the ailing economy.

President Barack Obama’s detailed fiscal 2010 spending plan, including for arms programs, is expected to be sent to Congress in April, after a more general summary is delivered on Thursday. Fiscal 2010 starts October 1.

The F-22 has strong bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress, not least because of the jobs it provides, with suppliers strategically chosen to cover the country Even if the administration opts to end the program, many lawmakers are likely to fight for continued funding.

Congress provided $140 million in bridge funds to keep the F-22’s production line going until at least March 1, when lawmakers had wanted the administration to make up its mind on whether to buy more than the 183 F-22s now on order or already delivered.

Sam Grizzle, a Lockheed spokesman, said last week that some F-22 suppliers already had been notified that “we will begin shutdown activities on 1 March unless the President certifies that continued production of the F-22 is in the national interest.”

Jeffery Adams, a Lockheed spokesman, had no comment Monday night.

The U.S. Air Force has reckoned the most recently purchased F-22s cost about $143 million per copy, not including development costs. Of the 183 now budgeted for, 135 had been delivered to the Air Force as of last week.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Obama’s sole cabinet holdover from former president George W. Bush, has favored Lockheed’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a multinational development effort. The F-35s cost roughly half as much as the F-22, Gates has said.

The administration plans to notify Congress on or about March 1 of its latest thinking on $90 million in congressionally provided bridge funds for the F-22 that the Pentagon has not yet spent, Morrell said .

“You should not read into it necessarily that this is a road map of where we are going” with the aircraft, he added. Rather, it would bring Congress up to date on parts that must be pre-ordered to be ready in time for production.

“Whatever we decide to do by March 1 with regard to long-lead parts is not necessarily an indication of where we’re going with the program as a whole,” Morrell said.

As part of its push to get more funding for the F-22, Lockheed Martin has said more than 95,000 jobs are at stake if no more aircraft are bought beyond the most recent plan of 183, which would end production no sooner than 2011.

Using two different estimating techniques, William Hartung of the private New America Foundation challenged this figures Monday. He said F-22 expenditures generate jobs in the range of 35,000 to 37,000 per year, less than 40 percent of the levels claimed by Lockheed Martin.

In addition, Hartung argued in an issue brief, any job losses that occur as a result of ending the F-22 program would be stretched out over two-and-a-half years or more, “suggesting that many of them may occur after the end of the current recession.”

Adams, the Lockheed spokesman, responded: “By our careful calculations, there are approximately 25,000 direct and 70,000 indirect jobs, in 44 states and at 1000 companies/suppliers that support the F-22 program.”

Reporting by Jim Wolf; Editing by Gary Hill & Kim Coghill