Murtha considers more F-22 funds despite veto threat

Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), the leading House defense appropriator, is considering boosting funds for Lockheed Martin’s F-22 fighter jet, despite vocal opposition from defense chief Robert Gates and a veto threat from the White House.

Murtha told The Hill on Thursday that he is “leaning towards” funding the procurement of components needed to build more F-22s after 2010. The Appropriations Defense subcommittee is slated to mark up the 2010 Pentagon-spending bill.

The Obama administration wants to cap the production of the radar-evading fighter jets at 187 and did not request any additional money in the 2010 budget. The House and Senate defense authorization committees, however, have each approved spending more money on F-22s next fiscal year.

The House already has approved $369 million for advance procurement in 2010. The Senate Armed Services Committee authorized $1.75 billion for seven more F-22s, but the full Senate has yet to vote on its bill.

The appropriations committees in each chamber would still have to approve the additional purchase of F-22s.

Murtha, the chairman of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, said that the money likely to be appropriated would only pay to purchase components for the planes and not the actual fighters.

“I’ll probably recommend that we put in advanced procurement — which is the only thing we can do,” Murtha said. But Murtha also acknowledged that adding money for the F-22 is not a sure thing, given the opposition from the White House.

He also expressed some concern with the F-22 costs.

“We got problems with the F-22, there is no question about it. We are talking about $50,000 per hour to fly that plane,” he said.

The $50,000 price tag per hour is for operating and maintaining the F-22, according to data from the House defense appropriations panel.

Murtha also said that his Senate counterpart, Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), is considering adding funds for the F-22 program. Inouye is seeking to facilitate the sale of the F-22 to the Japanese government, which wants badly to buy the airplane.

Murtha, who is willing to work with Inouye on facilitating the sale of the F-22 to the Japanese, said the sale may depend on whether Lockheed Martin’s Marietta, Ga., production line stays open for several more years, which in turn depends on additional domestic orders for the plane.

Murtha said he is meeting with Japanese government officials on Friday to gauge their nation’s interest in purchasing the plane.

There are a few obstacles to a sale, however. The biggest may be an export ban in place for the F-22. The author of that 11-year-old ban, Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), the House’s top appropriator, has not indicated his willingness to back off it.

There may also be time and cost hurdles to overcome. Lockheed Martin would have to spend a considerable amount of time — likely several years — to strip the jet of sensitive technologies employed by the U.S. military before it could be sold to the Japanese. That could be costly. By Murtha’s calculations the research and development to remove those capabilities would cost at least $1 billion and could go much higher. It is unclear whether the Japanese would be able to afford a final price in the end.

Meanwhile, the F-22 is largely designed as an aircraft for offensive missions. Japan would buy the F-22 for its Air Self Defense Force because the country has a post-World War II constitutional prohibition on war fighting.