A key Pentagon panel has approved starting limited production of the U.S. Air Force's controversial F-22 jet fighter despite acknowledging that costs were exceeding projections and that fewer jets could eventually be built.
The Defense Department panel, in an eagerly awaited decision, told the Air Force that it could begin initial production of 10 F-22s for $2.1 billion, but that the planned number of planes would have to be reduced to 295 from 333.
In what is likely to heat up the debate even more, the panel also recommended that the Pentagon pump an additional $6 billion into the program to reflect cost overruns. Because it would exceed the $58-billion cost cap for both development and production imposed by Congress, the Pentagon would have to submit a revised plan, it said.
"Both of those caps we cannot meet," Edward "Pete" Aldridge, the undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said in a conference with reporters, explaining that extending the testing schedule drove up costs. "We're just going to tell the Congress this is what we're going to do. This is the plan. Of course, they have the choice of not accepting it."
The decision to proceed with production, which comes nearly two decades after the plane was conceived, was still seen as a major boost to the program, considered one of the largest and oft-delayed defense procurement programs in U.S. history.
"The program is home free," said Loren Thompson, a defense policy analyst with the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank. "Crossing from development into production is the key threshold to sustaining the program for the long run. Once you start production, you develop a potent political constituency."
Critics called for the Pentagon to curtail the program, saying the plane is too expensive and is no longer needed in the post-Cold War era. The stealthy jet, which is expected to cost about $173 million each, is considered not only the most deadly fighter ever built but also the most expensive. It is intended to replace the venerable F-15 Eagle, an air-to-air fighter developed in the late 1960s.
"We're disappointed," said Eric Miller, defense programs investigator for the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit, nonpartisan government watchdog group that has been critical of the F-22 program. "Testing is behind schedule, cost is skyrocketing, and we still don't know if the aircraft will perform as promised. We think it was way too early to make this monumental decision."
Defense analysts said the Pentagon's decision will make it more difficult for such critics to derail the program, even though the program will have to face yearly reviews until a full-rate production is approved. Funding for the initial low-rate production was approved by Congress last year.
Lockheed Martin Co., which developed the F-22 in Burbank, will produce the plane at its plant in Marietta, Ga. But the panel's decision is a significant boost to Southern California's aerospace industry, which has about 250 contractors scattered throughout the region that make up a large share of the work on the F-22. The total value of the program to the region's suppliers--from Raytheon Corp. in El Segundo, where engineers developed the main computer for the airplane, to Parker Hannifin Corp.'s Parker Aerospace in Irvine, which is making various elements of the jet's fuel and flight control systems--could surpass $11 billion, Lockheed said.
Each F-22 is expected to cost $84 million to produce, but that figure swells with research, development, maintenance, facilities and related support expenses, federal officials say. By cutting the production rate, costs per plane increase.
Still, Pentagon officials have doggedly pushed for F-22 production, saying it is essential if the U.S. is to maintain its military dominance of the skies.
"We have clearly passed all of the criteria for exit to low-rate initial production," Aldridge said. ". . . And we've done it in spades. So we've passed every test the Congress asked us to do."
"We want to have air-to-air dominance. We do not want any fair fights in the air," Aldridge said. "We don't want any of our troops in harm's way on the ground from air. We've never had that happen since the Korean War, and we're hopefully not going to let it happen in any future war."
Pentagon officials said the Air Force could still build 333 airplanes that the military branch wants if it could achieve cost savings.
"They have tremendous incentive now to achieve the cost savings that they think they can achieve," Aldridge said.