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Senate votes to stop making more F-22 Raptor fighter jets

The vote follows Defense Secretary Gates' and President Obama's push to shift more spending to intelligence, personnel and the production of more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

July 22, 2009|Kristina Sherry

WASHINGTON — In a political victory for the Obama administration -- and a surprising defeat for some lawmakers in both parties -- the Senate voted Tuesday to halt further production of the Air Force's F-22 Raptor fighter jets.

The 58-40 vote on an amendment to the $680-billion defense authorization bill called for stripping out the $1.75 billion set aside for construction of seven more of the jets.

The F-22, which has not been used in Iraq or Afghanistan, has come under particular scrutiny for its price tag. The Pentagon has invested an estimated $65 billion in the program since it began, and each aircraft costs an estimated $44,000 per hour to operate.

If the Senate's action is sustained in the House-Senate conference version of the bill, F-22 production would cease at 187 planes.

In April, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced plans to invest more defense funds in intelligence and personnel and to shift money away from big weapons systems like the F-22. And President Obama had lobbied intensely against funding the planes, threatening what would have been his first veto.

The administration plans to shift funding to the single-engine F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, which also would be available to the Navy and Marine Corps and which Gates said would be superior to the F-22s in combat. The Pentagon also has proposed adding 22,000 troops to the Army.

A statement issued by the Pentagon said that Gates understood that the vote was difficult for many lawmakers, but that he believed "the Pentagon cannot continue with business as usual when it comes to the F-22 or any other program in excess of our needs."

But proponents of the F-22 argued that the twin-engine, missile-eluding Raptor fighter jet was important for defense. The aircraft originally was designed to counter a potential Soviet threat, and some now suggest that China and Russia are developing aircraft to compete with the F-22.

In addition, supporters of the F-22 cited the need to protect aerospace and other defense-related jobs in a poor economy.

The fighter jets are manufactured by Lockheed Martin Corp. at a plant in Marietta, Ga. According to the company, 25,000 people are directly employed in building the F-22, and an additional 70,000 have indirect links.

The jets' engines are made by Pratt & Whitney in Connecticut. The state's two senators -- Democrat Christopher J. Dodd and independent Joe Lieberman -- opposed the amendment.

Subcontracting work on F-22s and F-35s is done in Los Angeles and Orange counties. Democratic California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein also opposed the amendment.

Boxer criticized the timing of Tuesday's vote, arguing that it ignored the next Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon's outline for national security strategy, due in early 2010.

"The United States has made a significant investment in the F-22 program," Boxer said in a statement. "Before terminating it, I believe we must see in unequivocal terms how the defense planning process has determined that requirements and threats have changed to stop production at 187."

Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson of Georgia also voted against the amendment, and Isakson has vowed to push to keep money for the plane in the recently passed House version of the bill.

Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon of Santa Clarita, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, expressed his disappointment Tuesday with the Senate vote.

"The decision to terminate the line . . . cannot be easily reversed, and could cost Southern California thousands of high-paying jobs," he said.

Lockheed Martin has said that about a third of the F-22's suppliers are in California, providing as many as 6,500 jobs.

But Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), whose own state has endured massive job losses within the auto industry, called the vote "a significant victory for our men and women in uniform, for the taxpayers and for reforming the way we do business in Washington."

--

ksherry@tribune.com

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