The Obama Administration's plans to end production of the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter have hit something of a snag. As The Wall Street Journal reports, the House Armed Services Committee voted yesterday to spend an extra $369 million to keep the Raptor assembly line open.
Each F-22 carries a price tag of at least $130 million, so the supplemental funding won't go very far in buying additional aircraft. But if the measure is approved by the full House and Senate, it would provide a "down payment" on 12 more Raptors that Congress wants to buy in Fiscal Year 2011, providing money for materials and other items need for actual production.
Wednesday's vote was close--the spending proposal was approved by just one vote, 31-30. Still, it represented a rebuke to the White House and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who want to cap the F-22 inventory at just 187 aircraft. Congressional supporters of the Raptor believe the Air Force needs at least 240 of the fifth-generation fighters.
Spokesman for Lockheed-Martin, the plane's primary contractor, offered a guarded reaction to the House vote. While the company would like to build more F-22s, it is well aware of opposition to that plan by Mr. Obama and Mr. Gates. Additionally, the company is pushing for a major funding increase for production of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a program that is much more important for Lockheed's long-term bottom line. Clearly, the defense contractor doesn't want to do anything that might jeopardize support--or funding--for the JSF.
In an interview at the Paris Air Show on Monday, Mr. Stevens said the company had worked very hard to keep F-22 production going but once Mr. Gates made clear the program would stop at 187 jets, he felt he had to abide by the Obama administration's Pentagon priorities.
"Our role is not to fight the decisions that others make that do not align with our preferences," he said. "It's not who we are professionally."
Meanwhile, there has been another interesting development in the F-22 saga. Japan has made another push for acquiring the Raptor, suggesting that it may look at "non-U.S." aircraft if its request is rejected. To date, Washington has denied potential exports of the F-22 because of its advanced technology.
But with USAF production nearing an end--and lots of high-paying manufacturing jobs on the line in states like Georgia and Washington--there are indications that the U.S. government may re-consider, and offer a slightly-less-capable version to the Japanese. Similar proposals might be extended to other close allies (like Australia and Great Britian) that are also looking to replace aging fighters.
The F-22 battle is also important in another sense, one that has nothing to do with exports or corporate profits or American jobs. Congressional support for the Raptor may be an early indicator of how far the House and Senate are willing to go in supporting--or bucking--the defense procurement priorities laid out by the Obama Administration. Yesterday's committee vote doesn't necessarily mean more Raptors on the ramp, but it is an encouraging first step.
While the Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff have "accepted" Mr. Obama's plan to end F-22 production, at least one senior general is breaking ranks. General John Corley, commander of Air Combat Command, says limiting the Raptor fleet to 187 aircraft will put U.S. military strategy "at high risk." Corley made his comments in a letter to Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss, who asked for the ACC Commander's assessment. Excerpts from General Corley's letter were leaked to Congressional Quarterly:
“In my opinion, a fleet of 187 F-22s puts execution of our current national military strategy at high risk in the near to mid term,” Corley wrote in the June 9 correspondence. “To my knowledge, there are no studies that demonstrate that 187 F-22s are adequate to support our national military strategy.”
Corley’s command organizes, trains and equips the Air Force’s squadrons. His letter represents the clearest rebuke yet from within the military of the administration’s decision to end production of the F-22 and could give some in Congress pause about ratifying one of the highest-profile proposals in Obama’s first defense budget request. There are growing signs that some pivotal lawmakers may be leaning that way.
As you've probably guessed, General Corley--or more correctly, his command--has a dog in the F-22 fight. As part of its "train and equip" mission, ACC controls most of the Air Force's F-22 fleet. Buying another 60 Raptors (as advocated by Congressional supporters) would allow ACC to fully equip its Raptor squadrons and provide more power for combatant commanders.
Why is General Corley sticking his neck out? A significant number of Air Force generals are clearly unhappy with the current F-22 procurement plan, and Corley has nothing to lose. His retirement date was announced a few weeks ago. He will be replaced at ACC by General William Fraser III, a former ACC Vice Commander who now serves as the Air Force Vice Chief of Staff.