Having driven Yugoslav forces out of Kosovo during an 11-week air campaign, the U.S. Air Force expected to receive a pat on the back in Washington.

Instead, it got a slap in the face this week from a House panel that voted to suspend the planned purchase of the F-22 jet fighter, the Air Force's top-priority new weapon.

The action, initiated early in the week by an Appropriations subcommittee and affirmed yesterday by the full committee, has thrown the Air Force into a panic. Senior officers argue that the supersonic, radar-evading plane is needed to maintain control of the skies against new generations of aircraft and surface-to-air missiles under development by the Russians and Europeans.

Led by Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), who chairs the defense appropriations panel, critics of the F-22 contend that the Air Force would be better off upgrading and buying more existing models of jet fighters, bombers, aerial tankers and reconnaissance aircraft. Even at a time of surging defense spending, paying as much as $200 million each for hundreds of new fighters strikes opponents as an unaffordable luxury.

Stopping short of canceling the program, the committee removed $1.8 billion requested by the Air Force to buy the first six F-22s, but left $1.2 billion for research and development. The decision, according to Lewis, is intended to call a "pause" and allow for debate about the number and type of new aircraft the military really needs.

One of the central questions: Should the Pentagon be developing three new tactical combat aircraft? In addition to the F-22, military planners are pursuing an improved Navy carrier-based jet fighter, the F/A-18E/F, and a multipurpose Joint Strike Fighter for use by the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy.

"The Air Force has been so focused on this [F-22] program since the early 1990s that it has paid attention to little else," said Lewis, a 20-year House veteran who is serving his first year as subcommittee chairman. "That's not how the Air Force ought to be operating."

But the Air Force contends that a pause in F-22 development would effectively kill the program because it would be prohibitively expensive to resume. If permitted to continue without interruption, service officials say, the F-22 can be financed without breaking the Air Force's budget.

"We have spent that kind of money on one weapons system before," Lt. Gen. Gregory Martin, who oversees Air Force acquisitions, told reporters Thursday.

In fact, though, the F-22 appears to be setting new cost records, aggravated by production delays. In fiscal 2000 dollars, the estimated $60 billion price tag for the F-22 program would exceed what the Pentagon spent on the B-1 bomber ($36 billion), B-2 bomber ($57 billion) and C-17 transport plane ($43 billion). It also would surpass the $49 billion expended for the F-15 fleet that the new jet fighter is designed to replace.

The Air Force says the F-22 is needed to counter Russia's new SAM-10 and SAM-12 antiaircraft missiles as well as the Russian Su-35 fighter under development and the Eurofighter 2000 being built by a consortium of European countries. But experts on the Russian military say it is in such dire financial straits that it cannot actually produce new weapons that would pose much of a threat.

Lewis said he decided a month ago to go after the F-22 program, but kept his plans secret from the Air Force until he could win the committee's vote and compel a congressional debate. Backing the surprise maneuver was the subcommittee's ranking Democrat, Rep. John P. Murtha (Pa.).

"Both these guys, Lewis and Murtha, are heavyweights; they know their stuff," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who offered an amendment yesterday to restore the F-22 funds, then withdrew it in the face of insufficient support. "I think they're trying to make a serious change in American military policy."

The Senate's defense spending bill fully funds the Pentagon's request for the F-22s, so the issue is likely to go to a conference committee if the full House approves the Appropriations Committee's action.