Lockheed fights for endangered Raptor

When the Bush administration in December set out to slash $30 billion from defense budgets over the next five years, its biggest target was the F/A-22 Raptor program, a next-generation fighter and the Air Force’s top procurement priority.
File Photo
The F/A-22 Raptor

The Pentagon plans to trim the program from 277 aircraft to roughly 160 to save more than $10 billion through 2011. Original plans for the plane two decades ago called for more than 700 Raptors, but the $258 million platforms are too pricey in an increasingly strained budget environment.

The proposed F/A-22 cuts mark a significant departure from much of the Bush administration’s first term, when military transformation programs enjoyed unprecedented spending.

“There was not much pressure on defense budgets generally — which made my life easier — and tactical aviation in particular,” Dov Zakheim said during a Jan. 28 Lexington Institute conference on Capitol Hill. Zakheim served as the Pentagon’s comptroller from 2001 to 2004.

Now the Air Force and maker Lockheed Martin must decide how to fight to restore the $10 billion to the program — and how to prove the worth of a long-range fighter jet as the military wages a ground war against insurgents in Iraq.

The Pentagon is in the middle of its 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), a comprehensive review of military strategy, infrastructure and programs that will help determine how and where the military spends its money in the future. Pentagon leaders have directed the review team to include in the QDR an assessment of air dominance and tactical aircraft, potentially determining the fate of the F/A-22 buys.

“We understand the budgetary challenges that face the country, and we have confidence the process will be thorough and fair,” Lockheed Martin spokesman Tom Jurkowsky said.

Cuts to the F/A-22 and other aerial platforms “clearly have a huge impact on the nation’s defense industrial base,” Jurkowsky said.

The Raptor cuts, as well as the cancellation of Lockheed’s C-130J medium-size airlift program, could result in thousands of jobs lost at the company’s Marietta, Ga., facility alone, he added. Lockheed facilities in Pennsylvania, Florida and elsewhere could also be affected.

Perhaps the Air Force’s best chance of saving the program from any more cuts is the aerospace industry’s extensive lobbying base on Capitol Hill. Of all the services, the Air Force has by far the “most effectively organized industrial lobby,” said Gordon Adams, former associate director of national security programs at Office of Management and Budget.

The powerful Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) already plans to press Congress and the administration on the cuts proposed to the Raptor and other high-tech aviation programs, such as the C-130J, said John Douglass, the organization’s president and chief executive officer.
AIA represents more than 300 aerospace companies and does not lobby on behalf of any particular platform, but Douglass said the F/A-22 is one of several aerospace programs the military needs for the future.

“If you are going to do preemption, you have to have high-end tools to get over there and do what you need to do,” he said. “Look, if you really want to do this strategy of preemption, you need a highly mobile force deployed around the world … and systems like the F/A-22.”

Former and current Air Force officials already are praising publicly the virtues of the fighter.

“Building a force focused on a single vision of the future is fraught with risk,” retired Gen. Richard Hawley, former commander of Air Combat Command, said during the Capitol Hill conference.

At the same conference, Gen. John Jumper, the Air Force’s top officer, hailed the F/A-22 as an “unbelievable” intelligence and surveillance platform essential to future combat.

F/A-22 development and production started in 1985, and the Pentagon already has sunk $40 billion into it, making it a difficult program to target for dramatic cuts.

“At the end of the day, to not deploy more than a token number is kind of foolish,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va.

However, last February the Army decided to cancel the beleagured RAH-66 Comanche scout helicopter program, which had been in the works since the early 1980s. The Army had invested roughly $8 billion in Comanche over the years, but service officials opted to terminate the program anyway, deeming it a Cold War relic.

Complicating the future of the F/A-22 program is, oddly enough, the steady progress of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, another Lockheed Martin product. Defense analysts said they question whether there is enough room in the budget for both planes.

“There has been ongoing tension for years between the F/A-22 and the F-35, and I don’t think anybody expected the F-35 to go on schedule,” Aboulafia said. “There is this 2007, 2008 train wreck everybody’s talking about. There is one budgetary track and two trains on it.”

The F/A-22, a stealth fighter, has been the Air Force’s pet project. Meanwhile the F-35 multirole plane is an international, and comparatively more affordable, project that has become a top priority for the Netherlands, Great Britain, Australia and a handful of other nations.

“The F/A-22 is devoid of international partnerships,” Aboulafia said. “It’s the ultimate fighter that’s so capable few people need it.”