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New Generation of Stealth Fighter Caught in a Political-Flak Dogfight

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There are no gracefully lethal curves on this fighter plane. The F-22 looks like it was designed for pain, as flat and sharp as a blade.

The Air Force intends the F-22 stealth fighter to be the grimmest perdition to darken the skies since mythological times. It can smoke anything that flies without even showing up on radar, the Air Force says, and perform any maneuver a human can stand.

With the first of its breed set to fly in May, the F-22 marks a new era for the military and a new generation of corporate sustenance for the plane’s builders--Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., with two-thirds of the program, and Seattle’s Boeing Co., which supplies the wings and aft section.

But there are certain types of enemies the superplane is helpless against. They tend to wear suits and have lots of support staff.

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Congress is hot on the trail of the F-22, especially now that the Air Force has projected cost overruns and begun scaling things back. Like Elvis in the late 1960s, the F-22 is caught in a trap of changing circumstances.

“I think it’s vulnerable,” said Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), who heads an influential research and development subcommittee. “We’re going to step back and kind of rethink the whole defense posture.”

The F-22 is intended to replace the aging fleet of F-15s, which first took off in 1972. Its role is to rule the skies.

“Basically, he who has the F-22 will probably win the air battle, and that’s all there is to it,” said defense analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group.

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A number of things are happening simultaneously that could bode trouble for the F-22, though.

A six-month Pentagon review recommended in December that the program be curtailed to combat a projected $15-billion overrun.

A little over $2 billion of the overrun is in development costs. The Air Force and Lockheed Martin agreed to absorb that increase by eliminating three test aircraft, reducing the number of planes built in early years and delaying the 2004 decision to go into full production by nine months.

The rest of the predicted overrun is in the cost of producing the fleet of 438 planes, expected to increase from $48 billion to $61 billion. The review team recommended a number of changes--including abandoning some military acquisition practices in favor of more streamlined business techniques--to bring down costs.

A Defense Department panel recently reviewed the initial changes, and the contractors will submit plans for further restructuring by the end of February.

It is not incompetence by Lockheed Martin that is making numbers rise, experts say. Even with projected overruns of 20%, the F-22 would perform better than most combat aircraft programs, which have tended to exceed original cost estimates by as much as 100%, said analyst Wolfgang Demisch of B.T. Securities.

The bulk of the cost increase is from a change in the way inflation is calculated. Other factors include underestimating how much work will be needed to put coatings and finishes on the planes--a costly manual process known as “touch labor"--and underestimating how much flight testing will be needed for complex avionics systems.

Congress also may share some of the blame for failing to fully finance the program for the past three years, one analyst said.

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“I think that’s a cumulative catch-up of pushing them behind schedule and things not getting done,” said Peter Aseritis of C.S. First Boston.

No matter how good the explanations are, though, the timing of the news is bad. The Pentagon is conducting a series of internal evaluations, to culminate in May with the Quadrennial Force Review, that will prioritize spending programs.

Some in Congress and in other branches of the military had already viewed the F-22 as a fat target for reductions. Aside from being a costly super weapon during an era of Pentagon cutbacks, the F-22 has serious competition.

The Navy is spending $83 billion on its F-18 E/F fighter plane program. And the Joint Strike Fighter, until recently just a study project on how to build a low-cost standardized workhorse for three branches of the military, is suddenly a real-life program that stands to be the biggest military contract ever awarded.

Even though the F-22 plays a different war-fighting role than the Joint Strike Fighter--a few F-22s will thunder in and clear the skies so their swarmy little cousins can buzz through with bombs--the prospect of paying for so many planes at once has some saying it’s too much.

“The problem we’re in is an impossible situation where the Department of Defense has this pipe dream of us being able to fund tactical aviation in a way that’s just not realistic,” said Weldon.

All the fighter planes the Pentagon wants to build would cost up to $16 billion a year, he said. The military now is spending $2 billion to $3 billion a year on such planes.

“We just don’t have the money,” Weldon said. He promised a series of hearings later this year in which Congress will press the Air Force to make a better case for the F-22.

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Weldon also would like to see more detail on cost containment measures. He generally supports the effort, he said, but bemoans the tendency to save money up front by simply delaying purchases. “That just increases the per-copy cost in the out years. We can’t keep playing these games,” Weldon said.

At the very least, many experts say, the Air Force will probably buy fewer than the 438 planes it now projects. Analyst Aboulafia thinks 300 to 340 is a more likely number.

There is even a remote possibility the program could be halted.

“There is at least greater potential this year for doing something other than business as usual,” said Andrew Krepinevich, director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment.

Another threat to the F-22, he says, is the cruise missile. So many nations are developing cruise missile technology that a traditional air dominance fighter such as the F-22 could become obsolete. A few low-flying cruise missiles could wipe out an airfield before the mighty jets get off the ground.

That threat changes the dynamics, making things like airborne lasers, unmanned aerial vehicles or long-range bombers like the now-frowned-on B-2 seem more important than a traditional fighter jet, he said.

Two factors form a reliable safety net for the F-22 program: The Air Force really, really wants it. And the plane is being built in Marietta, Ga.--in House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s district.


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