F-22 facing a heated showdown; A key House foe is standing behind the funding cut; Senate friendlier; Conferees expected to start work on a budget compromise

THE BALTIMORE SUN

He has had a month to reconsider the bold move that the Air Force said jeopardized its most important new weapon, the F-22 fighter plane.

Rep. Jerry Lewis spent the congressional recess that ended last week listening to argument upon argument about why he should put $1.8 billion back into the budget for buying the next six copies of the Lockheed Martin-built plane.

The California Republican, who heads the military spending subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, visited factories near Atlanta and Seattle where workers depend on the $62.7 billion F-22 program for jobs. He met with Air Force and industry officials who pressed their fervent conviction that the F-22 is indispensable for national security.

So when Congress reconvened last week and defense industry lobbyists swarmed by Lewis' office, they may have been surprised by his attitude. "My position hasn't changed at all," Lewis said in an interview. "In fact, if anything, it's been strengthened."

That sets up a potentially heated confrontation with Senate leaders who back full funding of $3 billion for the program for next year. The House should appoint its defense budget conferees this week, and the two sides will begin working almost immediately to hammer out a spending compromise that hinges on the F-22.

Lewis stunned the clubby world of defense contracting in July by pushing a huge cut to an F-22 program that had seemed almost untouchable.

After the full House of Representatives passed the cut as part of its defense budget, the Air Force and Lockheed Martin shook off their disbelief and mounted a frantic lobbying campaign to get the money restored.

The Bethesda-based defense contractor went on a tour of key states -- including California, Texas, Georgia and New York -- with its F-22 "concept demonstrator," a mock cockpit that uses computerized battle scenes to show the planned power of the plane.

On Wednesday and Thursday, Lockheed Martin was host to about 90 executives from 35 to 40 of its biggest subcontractors in an "F-22 Suppliers Conference" at the Marriott Crystal Gateway hotel in Crystal City, Va.

After two days of closed-door speeches from such officials as corporate President Peter Teets, Air Force acquisitions official Darleen Druyun and Air Force program executive Gen. Claude Bolton, the suppliers were turned loose on Capitol Hill to carry positive messages about the program to members of Congress.

Each had a fact card for handy reference, but Lockheed Martin officials said they did not instruct the subcontractors on whom to lobby.

Company program manager R. S. Rearden Jr. said each supplier paid his or her own way to the conference. He took issue with reports that the company has spent vast amounts on its lobbying campaign.

To say that Lockheed Martin has spent "a million or millions is a gross overstatement of the amount," Rearden said, adding that "none of the monies this team may spend in providing information or correcting misinformation is being charged to the U.S. government. It's being footed by the companies, not by the taxpayer."

The conference is an annual event for top companies among the 1,900 firms that supply parts or services to the F-22 effort, Rearden said. This year's session took on added weight not only because of the need to lobby Congress, but also because of the need to soothe the jangled nerves of far-flung contractors who suddenly have to worry about the program's health.

The House funding cut set off rumors and gossip at the Boeing factory where the wings and tail are built, said Robert D. Barnes, Boeing's F-22 program manager.

The mood among line workers has been "surprise, or even shock," Barnes said.

That sense remains, even among top executives. James A. "Micky" Blackwell, the president of Lockheed Martin's Aeronautics Sector, sounded exasperated as he ticked off the "misinformation" that he said has been spread about the program.

Flight tests, schedules and costs are all on target, he said, complaining that congressional budget cuts have disrupted the program more than anything the companies have done. "Where is this out of control? The government is causing the cost increase, not us," he said.

The proposed budget cut would disrupt production plans and subcontracts so much that it would boost costs by about $6 billion, Blackwell said. And he warned that it would have a devastating impact on small suppliers. "Many of them are going to close their doors and go out of business, period," he said.

That was the theme that Lockheed Martin wanted to convey when its subcontractors hit Capitol Hill after the conference. Lewis said several visited him, and that he remained unpersuaded.

The jobs argument carries little weight, he said, for two reasons: The first is that the primary concern ought to be national security, and the second is that many of the jobs under discussion do not exist yet.

Another warplane program -- the Joint Strike Fighter -- will provide work for the same companies now fretting over the F-22, Lewis said. With the Pentagon planning to buy nearly 3,000 Joint Strike Fighters, compared with only 339 F-22s, "frankly, that program is more important to the subcontractors," he said.

Lewis also questions the argument that pausing the F-22 now will make it more expensive down the road.

"The almost unbelievable assumption on the part of spokesmen for both Lockheed Martin and the Air Force that, like flipping a switch, a pause is going to add $5 billion or $6 billion in cost -- that really startled me initially, because of either the simplicity with which they were responding to our concerns or maybe the arrogance with which they were responding," he said.

"You have to believe that [the cost figure] was developed by the same people who sold the program on us in the mid-1980s with the promise that the plane could be built for $35 million [apiece]," Lewis said.

A series of articles that ran in The Sun in July chronicled how the Air Force knowingly understated the cost of the program in the early days, then continued to make misleading claims about cost and risk to keep the F-22 alive.

The Air Force has joined the contractors in the past month in a campaign of rebuttal. Current and former Air Force officials have written op-ed pieces in newspapers and participated in forums such as one held in a Senate office building on Thursday by the Lexington Institute, a Washington-area think tank that favors the F-22.

While the initial shock of Lewis' cut seemed to leave program supporters woozy, they now appear to have the odds on their side. Sen. Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, could not be reached for comment but said in the media last week that he would ensure that funding is restored for the F-22. But Lewis promised to stand by his position.

"Essentially what the companies have been saying is, 'We made up our minds a long time ago, the Air Force is our customer and you in Congress ought to just get along with your business and spend this money,' " he said. "Well, that's getting ahead of one's self a bit."

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