President Bush, in words likely to alarm the Pentagon and its contractors, has suggested for the first time that the administration might have to do away with two of the three costly fighter plane programs currently being developed.
Bush, whose aides are conducting a sweeping review of military needs, told reporters Tuesday: "I think it is realistic for me to say that, as president, I'm not sure we can afford all three."
"Maybe we can," he told representatives of regional news organizations in an interview. "But if not, let's pick the best one, and the one that fits into a strategy."
Defense experts said Bush's words were striking as a renewed affirmation of his intention to cut into spending on some programs. But they were even more remarkable as an apparent signal that he might cut two of three programs--a suggestion that has not been made before.
On the Defense Department's drawing board are the Air Force's $62-billion F-22 Stealth fighter; the Navy's $46-billion F/A-18 E&F; Super Hornet fighter-bomber; and the $200-billion Joint Strike Fighter, which is to be used by the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines and perhaps some allied military forces.
The president suggested during his campaign that he would make dramatic cuts in some defense programs and "skip a generation" of weapons as part of an effort to modernize the forces. But he has said little about specific fighter programs since he was elected.
A White House spokeswoman, Mary Ellen Countryman, declined comment. At the Pentagon, several officials who asked to remain unidentified suggested the president may have misspoken.
"I can't imagine they would really do this," said John Isaacs, president of the Council for a Livable World, a group that advocates reduced military spending. "But it is an indication that they are serious about cutting something."
He noted that cancellations of big defense programs are rare and that far more often the Pentagon reduces the number of weapons that are bought or stretches the acquisition schedule.
The cancellation of even one of the three would bring a major political reaction from the program's military advocates, contractors, lawmakers and affected communities.
The Navy's F/A-18 E&F; program is furthest along. The program, which has Boeing as its principal contractor, began production in 1997 and now is completing several dozen aircraft a year.
The radar-evading F-22, made by Lockheed-Martin, has been at the end of its development stage and has been hoping to win approval for production to begin.
The Joint Strike Fighter, which would be the biggest defense program ever, is still years from production. That fact has made it the the most vulnerable of the group.
Speculation about the cancellation of a program has centered on the Joint Strike Fighter because "it's still the least nailed down," said Steve Kosiak of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis.
The military services have been pushing for major new tactical air programs for more than a decade, but their plans were complicated by the downsizing of the military in the early 1990s, which limited acquisition budgets.
If the Bush administration cuts out one or two of the programs, the services would still have to modernize their fleets by buying more aircraft of existing models, analysts noted. But that is not likely to be nearly as lucrative for contractors, they added.