Monday 29 December 2008
by: Bob Cox, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Lockheed-Martin's F-22 Raptor. (Photo: Warren M. Bodie)
Sometime during his first couple of months in office, President-elect Barack Obama will have to confront one of his first big decisions about U.S. defense policy and budgets.
And it's a thorny one.
Specifically, Obama and his as-yet-unnamed circle of top defense advisers will have to determine whether to continue spending roughly $4 billion a year to buy F-22 Raptor fighter jets built by Lockheed Martin.
They might decide, as the Bush administration has, that the F-22 is superfluous and that the money is needed for other priorities. On the other hand, the Air Force, according to defense analysts and consultants, wants to buy at least 60 more of the $180 million jets.
Jim McAleese, a consultant with close ties to the Air Force, told a Reuters conference in Washington last week that the service was putting "all its political capital" into buying more F-22s beyond the 183 on order.
"I think the Air Force will work very hard to build a consensus" around the idea of buying 60 more F-22s under a three-year agreement, McAleese said.
Time is of the essence, according to the Air Force and Lockheed, which says it needs hundreds of millions of dollars soon to keep the F-22 production line up and running. If the line begins to shut down and then is restarted, F-22 advocates say it would add hundreds of millions of dollars to the cost of buying more planes.
The F-22, launched in the early 1980s to counter Soviet air forces in Europe, has been targeted by the Pentagon civilian management team as an airplane that is likely to be of little use in the kinds of irregular wars the U.S. is fighting or is likely to face.
The Air Force and its backers say the F-22 could be necessary to deal with regional threats posed by countries buying advanced Russian and Chinese fighter jets. Lockheed Chief Executive Robert Stevens told the same conference that the F-22's stealth capabilities make it an excellent deterrent.
And F-22 supporters are trotting out the jobs argument, saying the Obama administration surely will not want to put thousands more aerospace industry employees out of work in the midst of a deep recession.
Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute think tank and a consultant to Lockheed with close ties to the Air Force, said in a recent op-ed piece that while defense purchases shouldn't be justified by the jobs they create, killing the F-22 could potentially affect thousands of jobs, directly and indirectly.
Maintaining F-22 production, Thompson said, is important "because the U.S. still has a big commercial aerospace sector benefiting from the economies of scale created by suppliers and labor forces serving both public and private markets."
About 1,800 employees work on the F-22 at Lockheed's Fort Worth plant, where the aircraft's midfuselage section is produced. Boeing produces the wings in Seattle; Pratt & Whitney supplies the engines; and Lockheed assembles the planes in Marietta, Ga.
"We await and will support the decision of the next administration regarding any continuation of F-22 production," Lockheed spokesman Rob Fuller said in a statement.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been in open conflict with the Air Force over the F-22 and fired the former Air Force secretary and chief of staff for, among other things, their open advocacy of the program in defiance of administration policy.
Obama is retaining Gates, but F-22 supporters believe that they have a better chance of preserving the program once Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England leaves.
England, the former head of General Dynamics and Lockheed's Fort Worth plant, has said repeatedly that the Air Force does not need more F-22s and has worked to accelerate purchases of the F-35 joint strike fighter.
In a recent interview with the Star-Telegram, England said the Pentagon's limited funds for aircraft need to be spent on speeding F-35 development and production.
"There's no question that Gordon England has tried to kill the F-22," Thompson said in an interview.
England's view is supported by a number of recent position papers from think tanks offering advice to Obama, and The New York Times editorial page has weighed in against the Raptor.
Obama is a smart politician and, Thompson said, will probably pick other defense battles to fight that will produce greater budgetary savings than shutting down F-22 production.
Plus, senior Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee are supporters of the program. "Why would Obama want to get into an argument with these people?" Thompson said.
Other than retaining Gates, Obama has not named anyone to fill key Defense Department posts, most notably England's successor. Obama has been advised on defense policy by officials from the Clinton administration, including former Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters, who some say may be an F-22 advocate.