Congress hot on the tail of F-22 fighter $15 billion overrun, Pentagon cuts peril Lockheed's super jet; Made in Gingrich's district; Stealth tactical fighter is competing against other fighter projects


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, 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.

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, the Pennsylvania Republican 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. Their 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.

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 amount 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 more streamlined business techniques -- to bring down costs.

A Defense Department panel will review the initial changes Jan. 29, and the contractors will submit plans for further restructuring by the end of February.

It's not incompetence by Lockheed Martin that's making numbers rise, experts say. Even with projected overruns of 20 percent, the F-22 would be performing better than most combat aircraft programs, which have tended to exceed original cost estimates by as much as 100 percent, 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.

"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, the Pennsylvania congressman.

All the fighter planes the Pentagon wants to build would cost up to $16 billion a year, he says. The military currently 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.

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," he 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's 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.

"That doesn't hurt," conceded Tom Burbage, Lockheed Martin's general manager for the F-22 program. "As far as the House goes, [Gingrich] is obviously the strongest proponent for us."

Burbage also points out that the technology of the F-22 will underpin almost everything that follows it, including the Joint Strike Fighter.

The F-22, as designed, has four basic areas of technological innovation:

The plane is the greatest advance to date in stealth technology, said Burbage, the F-22 program's general manager.

It is capable of "supercruise," or going into supersonic speeds without using afterburners. This contributes to the plane's stealth by reducing the amount of heat it puts out, and extends its range by avoiding the high fuel consumption of an afterburner.

It will include the most sophisticated package of avionics and electronic gewgaws ever given wings. The plane boils galaxies of sensors and processors into a few basic units.

The pilot, for instance, will look at three main screens instead of an array of dials. Starting the jet becomes three easy steps instead of 14. It can carry three main computers equal in power to six of the old Cray supercomputers or to 270 Pentium chips.

The F-22 is designed for extreme agility.

No one of those advances is all that remarkable on its own, Burbage said. But the combinations may be precedent-setting.

There has never been a plane that is this stealthy, this agile, and this crammed with electronics. The F-117 stealth fighters that debuted in the gulf war are blind and crippled by comparison.

The Air Force, which has watched its technical superiority fade away over the last few years as countries in Europe and Asia develop new fighter craft, is desperate to get ahold of the F-22, observers say.

"It is important to the Air Force because it is important to the nation," said Lt.Gen. George Muellner, the Air Force's top uniformed acquisition officer. "There are an awful lot of countries out there, including Russia, selling air-to-air airplanes and other weapons systems that are as good or better than what we have now."

Muellner said he remembered flying F-15s as a young captain in 1973, and pointed out that by the time the F-22 goes into full production in 2004, its predecessor plane will be more than 30 years old.

An aging fighter that has no real edge over its adversary cannot hope to achieve what the military now says it wants: air dominance. The F-22, Muellner said, "allows you on Day 1 not only to command the air over your own forces but it also allows you to own the airspace over your enemy's forces so you can attack them at will."

But while the Air Force has sold itself on the need for the plane, it is just now beginning to intensify its case to outsiders.

"I think the Air Force recognizes that they need to do more of that, and I think we're starting to see more of that," said Burbage, the F-22 program's general manager.

As Congress begins hearings on the program this year, Lockheed Martin will be keeping close tabs on one of its most cherished programs.

"We feel like we're the high technology defense contractor and this is another first-class program for the Lockheed portfolio," Burbage said. "It's also very important for the individual companies involved because of the base it provides for the future."

He is not worried about possible cuts. It may turn out to be a good thing, Burbage said, that the cost overrun study was timed so close to the defense reviews that will determine the program's fate.

At least everyone will know exactly where the F-22 stands, he said.

Beyond that, there's no denying the sheer Star Trek appeal of 7/8 7/8 TC machine like the F-22. On the cockpit demonstrator at Lockheed Martin's plant in Georgia, there is a switch that turns the simulator into an F-15 for comparison.

All the enemy blips that they were vaporized by the F-22 suddenly engulf the F-15 in red destruction zones.

"We expect that a lot of people in Congress are going to want to come down here and get briefings pretty soon," Burbage said. "We're glad to do that. We think we have a good story to tell."

Pub Date: 1/19/97

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