By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
A top Air Force official said yesterday that the service is cutting back on plans to buy more F-22 Raptor fighter jets, a move that means the production line where Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin makes the expensive planes could be a step closer to closing.
The Air Force is under contract to buy at least 183 F-22s from Lockheed and has said it would like 381. But Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz told a defense writers group that the service is likely to buy "less than 381." He would not say how many more the service will buy, but said he would not disagree with an earlier statement from Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that it may need only 60 more F-22s.
The Obama administration has a March 1 deadline to decide whether to buy more F-22s. The fighter jets, which cost about $350 million each, are meant to replace the aging fleet of F-15s, made by Boeing. Lockheed is scheduled to deliver the last of the 183 F-22s in 2011.
Some defense officials and analysts say the Pentagon can't afford both the F-22 and Lockheed's upcoming F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet.
Lockheed has been lobbying to keep open the 25,000-person F-22 production line in Marietta, Ga. Larry Lawson, executive vice president and general manager of Lockheed's F-22 program, said the U.S. military has spent nearly $60 billion over the last two decades developing and acquiring the F-22.
"Now is the time to leverage that investment to continue production," Lawson said. Keeping the production line open would be consistent with Obama's "desire to preserve and create jobs in these tough economic times and is consistent with the Air Force's need for additional aircraft," he said.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said that difficult choices will have to be made in picking weapons systems. Analysts expect that some programs will be cut after years of steadily rising defense budgets, due in large part to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the Pentagon approves buying more F-22s, Schwartz said the Air Force likely would cut other parts of its budget. "Our basic approach is, if we want something we are going to have to pay for it," he said.
Mackenzie Eaglen, a senior policy analyst for national security at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said there is a "slightly greater than 50-50 chance" that the Air Force will buy one more batch of F-22s.
She said, "The defense industrial base is a national asset," and given the rising unemployment rate, especially in the manufacturing sector, "this is not the year to begin closing down the sole, fifth-generation fighter production line."