Fighter dispute hits stratosphere

Times Staff Writer

In an intensifying dispute over weapons priorities, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Thursday privately rebuked a four-star general for suggesting the Air Force intended to buy twice as many sophisticated F-22 Raptor aircraft as the Bush administration had approved, according to Air Force officials.

One senior defense official called the remarks by Gen. Bruce Carlson, who heads the Air Force command responsible for testing and developing new weapons, "borderline insubordination," because they contradicted a decision by the president.

In its 2009 budget submitted to Congress earlier this month, the White House approved multiyear plans to buy 183 of the stealthy new fighters at an estimated $140 million apiece. Many Air Force officials, however, continue to insist they need 381 of the F-22s to deter global threats.

The rebuke by Gates on Thursday, in a telephone call to Carlson's superior, reflects a deepening debate within the Defense Department over the direction of the military in the post-Iraq era. In particular, the clash over the F-22 -- the Air Force's premier fighter plane -- has become a microcosm of the argument over what kind of wars the United States is likely to encounter in the future.

With defense spending expected to decline as U.S. troops withdraw from Iraq, some in the Pentagon have argued for shifting money to high-end weapons systems, like fighters and Navy ships, that can be used if needed against rivals with larger militaries, like China and Russia.

Gates prefers a focus on equipment and personnel needed to wage low-grade counterinsurgencies, like Iraq, arguing that such fights are more likely to occur in the near future.

"The reality is we are fighting two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the F-22 has not performed a single mission in either theater," Gates told a Senate committee last week.

Carlson, however, told a group of reporters earlier in the week that the Air Force was "committed to funding 380" of the fighters, regardless of the Bush administration's decision.

According to an Air Force official briefed on the Thursday rebuke, Gates telephoned Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne, who was on vacation at the time, to express his displeasure with Carlson.

The senior defense official said Carlson's remarks, reported Thursday by the trade publication Aerospace Daily, angered the Pentagon's top leadership, adding that they were "completely unacceptable and out of line."

"Gen. Carlson and others in the Air Force may not like it, but 183 is the number of F-22s approved first by Defense Secretary [Donald H.] Rumsfeld, then reaffirmed by Defense Secretary Gates and provided for in budgets presented to Congress by President Bush -- Gen. Carlson's commander in chief," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing internal debates.

Although the comments by Carlson reflect widespread thinking within the service, Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff, has been careful in recent weeks to shy away from a direct confrontation with Gates, saying he would take the F-22 up again with the new administration.

"I'm being very, very, very careful not to get pitted against Dr. Gates, because I've said to him over and over, when we've had this conversation, 'Just don't shut the [assembly] lines down,' " Moseley said in an interview with The Times last week.

At the same time, as part of a new strategic plan released by Moseley last week, the Air Force chief listed as one of his top acquisition priorities negotiating a new multiyear procurement contract for the F-22. The existing contract with defense giant Lockheed Martin only accounts for 183 planes.

"We can defend our requirement of 381," Moseley said. "You can defend that on any number of operational analyses, but I'm trying not to go down that road."

In the 2009 budget, Gates agreed to keep the F-22 assembly line open -- but just barely. He removed $400 million in funding that would have been used to start shutting down the line and instead is expected to request four additional fighters when he submits a war funding proposal to Congress this spring.

The decision will allow the next presidential administration to decide whether to keep the F-22 program at current levels or expand the program to the numbers the Air Force is seeking.

The Air Force has faced intense pressure from within Gates' inner circle to shut down the line entirely. Gates has argued that the aircraft is only intended to fight "near peer" competitors, Pentagon code words for China and Russia, threats which Gates does not consider imminent.

Some Gates aides argued that the imminent production run of the Joint Strike Fighter -- a smaller, newer and cheaper plane -- made acquiring additional F-22s unnecessary and pushed for the line to be shut down completely in the 2009 budget.

"Looking at what I regard as the level of risk of conflict with one of those 'near peers' over the next four or five years, until the Joint Strike Fighter comes along, I think that something along the lines of 183 is a reasonable buy," Gates said last week.

Air Force officials have argued that the single-engine Joint Strike Fighter is not as capable as the two-engine F-22, which is faster and would be used in the early stages of a war against an adversary with sophisticated air defenses.

But Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England told a congressional hearing Wednesday that the performance of the two planes was "extraordinarily close" and that he had recommended ending the line completely. Officials familiar with England's stance said he argued internally for the F-22 line to be shut down, only to be overruled by Gates.

"My strong feeling is that we have enough F-22s," England testified. "We're designed for a specific mission, we have enough [F-22s] to do that mission and we need to go on with the Joint Strike Fighter program."

Under the Air Force's reasoning, each of its 10 expeditionary forces -- the Air Force equivalent of a Navy carrier battle group or an Army brigade combat team -- needs to be equipped with a squadron of F-22s so that any battlefield commander around the world would have them ready to face any unexpected foe.

Brig. Gen. Darren W. McDew, the head of Air Force public affairs, insisted that the Air Force continued to support the Bush administration's budget and characterized the debate over the number of F-22s as a routine disagreement over weapons systems.

"I think Gen. Carlson was really saying some of the same things, but maybe with a little bit more passion," McDew said. "We're looking forward in the future to a continued debate about where the numbers are going to be as we figure what post-Iraq is going to look like."

Opponents of the F-22 charged that Air Force officials used the November grounding of the service's fleet of F-15 fighters -- the aircraft the F-22 is designed to replace -- to ramp up support for the newer plane. The F-15s were grounded after one of the fighters disintegrated in mid-flight. Although most of the 670 F-15s in the Air Force inventory have returned to service, about 160 older models have remained mothballed.

Air Force officials have denied overplaying the F-15's flaws, but advocates in Congress have pushed Gates to reconsider increasing the number of F-22s to account for the unexpected loss of F-15s.

The F-22 is primarily built by Lockheed in its aircraft plants in Ft. Worth and Marietta, Ga.

A portion of the aircraft's electronic systems are built in Lockheed's Palmdale facility, and Lockheed said nearly a third of the fighter's approximately 1,000 suppliers are in California, providing about 5,600 jobs.

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peter.spiegel@latimes.com

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