THE REPORTED congressional decision regarding the F-22 fighter plane seems right to us. House-Senate conferees are said to have put off the question of killing or buying the costly aircraft while continuing tests to find out whether it works. Some people will see that as an irresolute outcome; our contrary sense is that it is wise. It's rare for all sorts of reasons for Congress to stand up to a major weapons system. Far from a weak result, this indication that the F-22 might eventually receive less than full approval as planned is, by legislative standards, a strong intervention.

The government already has spent more than $20 billion on development of the F-22. To kill it would be to walk away from that with nothing to show. Before making such a decision, members at least should have a better idea than they can from current information what it is that they are abandoning. The plane is hugely expensive. If you count the money already spent, it would cost the Air Force more than $200 million a copy. Defenders say it would guarantee for the foreseeable future the air superiority the country has come to count on, and expect, in military operations. Critics say such superiority can be maintained at much less cost, since no other air force in the world can remotely challenge even current U.S. capability.

That's the kind of balancing of cost and guessed-at risk that the project presents. The budget makes the decision harder. This is not the only costly weapons system on the Pentagon's current shopping list; it is not even the only costly fighter plane. The cost of all these weapons together is much greater than the currently projected budget would allow. If the budget doesn't go up, either some of the weapons have to be dropped or some other part of the budget has to be cut to make room. Which will it be?

Both elected branches have been ducking this unpleasant question. Insofar as the House appropriators who had the pluck to challenge the F-22 have thereby begun to raise the larger question, they have performed an important public service.