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High-Priced F-22 Fighter Has Major Shortcomings

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Lt. Gen. Harry M. Wyatt III, director of the Air National Guard, said in a letter this week to Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) that he likes the F-22 because its speed and electronics enable it to handle "a full spectrum of threats" that current defensive aircraft "are not capable of addressing."

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"There is really no comparison to the F-22," said Air Force Maj. David Skalicky, a 32-year-old former F-15 pilot who now shows off the F-22's impressive maneuverability at air shows. Citing the critical help provided by its computers in flying radical angles of attack and tight turns, he said "it is one of the easiest planes to fly, from the pilot's perspective."

Its troubles have been detailed in dozens of Government Accountability Office reports and Pentagon audits. But Pierre Sprey, a key designer in the 1970s and 1980s of the F-16 and A-10 warplanes, said that from the beginning, the Air Force designed it to be "too big to fail, that is, to be cancellation-proof."

Lockheed farmed out more than 1,000 subcontracts to vendors in more than 40 states, and Sprey -- now a prominent critic of the plane -- said that by the time skeptics "could point out the failed tests, the combat flaws, and the exploding costs, most congressmen were already defending their subcontractors' " revenues.

John Hamre, the Pentagon's comptroller from 1993 to 1997, says the department approved the plane with a budget it knew was too low because projecting the real costs would have been politically unpalatable on Capitol Hill.

"We knew that the F-22 was going to cost more than the Air Force thought it was going to cost and we budgeted the lower number, and I was there," Hamre told the Senate Armed Services Committee in April. "I'm not proud of it," Hamre added in a recent interview.

When limited production began in 2001, the plane was "substantially behind its plan to achieve reliability goals," the GAO said in a report the following year. Structural problems that turned up in subsequent testing forced retrofits to the frame and changes in the fuel flow. Computer flaws, combined with defective software diagnostics, forced the frequent retesting of millions of lines of code, said two Defense officials with access to internal reports.

Skin problems -- often requiring re-gluing small surfaces that can take more than a day to dry -- helped force more frequent and time-consuming repairs, according to the confidential data drawn from tests conducted by the Pentagon's independent Office of Operational Test and Evaluation between 2004 and 2008.

Over the four-year period, the F-22's average maintenance time per hour of flight grew from 20 hours to 34, with skin repairs accounting for more than half of that time -- and more than half the hourly flying costs -- last year, according to the test and evaluation office.

The Air Force says the F-22 cost $44,259 per flying hour in 2008; the Office of the Secretary of Defense said the figure was $49,808. The F-15, the F-22's predecessor, has a fleet average cost of $30,818.

'Compromises'

Darrol Olsen, a specialist in stealth coatings who worked at Lockheed's testing laboratory in Marietta, Ga., from 1995 to 1999, said the current troubles are unsurprising. In a lawsuit filed under seal in 2007, he charged the company with violating the False Claims Act for ordering and using coatings that it knew were defective while hiding the failings from the Air Force.

He has cited a July 1998 report that said test results "yield the same problems as documented previously" in the skin's quality and durability, and another in December that year saying, "Baseline coatings failed." A Lockheed briefing that September assured the Air Force that the effort was "meeting requirements with optimized products."


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