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High-Priced F-22 Fighter Has Major Shortcomings

But last Nov. 20, John J. Young Jr., who was then undersecretary of defense and Ahern's boss, said that officials continue to struggle with the F-22's skin. "There's clearly work that needs to be done there to make that airplane both capable and affordable to operate," he said.

When Gates decided this spring to spend $785 million on four more planes and then end production of the F-22, he also kept alive an $8 billion improvement effort. It will, among other things, give F-22 pilots the ability to communicate with other types of warplanes; it currently is the only such warplane to lack that capability.

The cancellation decision got public support from the Air Force's top two civilian and military leaders, who said the F-22 was not a top priority in a constrained budget. But the leaders' message was muddied in a June 9 letter from Air Combat Cmdr. John D.W. Corley to Chambliss that said halting production would put "execution of our current national military strategy at high risk in the near to mid-term." The right size for the fleet, he said, is 381.

Fatal Test Flight

One of the last four planes Gates supported buying is meant to replace an F-22 that crashed during a test flight north of Los Angeles on March 25, during his review of the program. The Air Force has declined to discuss the cause, but a classified internal accident report completed the following month states that the plane flew into the ground after poorly executing a high-speed run with its weapons-bay doors open, according to three government officials familiar with its contents. The Lockheed test pilot died.

Several sources said the flight was part of a bid to make the F-22 relevant to current conflicts by giving it a capability to conduct precision bombing raids, not just aerial dogfights. The Air Force is still probing who should be held accountable for the accident.

Staff writer Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.

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