Deal keeps F-22 alive; Lockheed Martin jet gets funding, but more tests required; 'Pause' in production; House-Senate panel compromise provides $2.5 billion for fighter


WASHINGTON -- There will be no combat-ready F-22 fighter planes produced next year, but the Pentagon can buy up to six test versions of the jet under a compromise military spending plan that House and Senate negotiators agreed to last night.

The plan both saves the Lockheed Martin-built aircraft from a proposed cut that supporters said would kill it and requires the contractor to test the complex plane more thoroughly before the Pentagon commits to buying it.

A House-Senate conference committee produced the plan as part of a $267.7 billion defense spending package for next year. The bill, which could be acted on by the House of Representatives as soon as today, includes about $2.5 billion for the Lockheed Martin-built F-22.

That is less than the $3 billion full funding that the Senate had approved for buying six of the combat planes next year, but more than the $1.2 billion the House allotted in a move to cut the program.

The compromise allowed both sides to claim satisfaction. The key points:

None of the restored money is for production of combat-ready planes next year. The plan includes $1 billion in extra research and development money that can be used to buy "up to" six test planes. Of that, $277 million is a down payment on 10 production planes that could be bought in 2001.

An additional $300 million will be set aside to cover penalties, in case any contracts have to be terminated.

New language in the bill forbids building combat planes in 2001 until flight testing validates the software for the F-22's sophisticated electronics gear. There are more than 1 million lines of computer code involved.

"I'm very pleased with the results," said Rep. Jerry Lewis, a California Republican, who provoked furious lobbying over the summer by the Air Force and Lockheed Martin with his surprisingly successful effort to get the House to cut the F-22 funding.

Lewis said he wanted to achieve "a pause" in the F-22 effort to get the Air Force to rethink whether the $62.7 billion program is necessary in the post-Cold War world, when two other fighter planes also are in the works. He also wanted to force the Pentagon to conduct more testing before committing to production. He said last night that the compromise spending plan would accomplish both aims.

"There's little doubt that the Air Force is looking toward the House and Senate in a different way than they might have been a year ago," Lewis said.

Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican who used his position as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee to wage an aggressive campaign to restore funding to the program, said he, too, was pleased with the results.

"I'm satisfied that the F-22 funding is enough to keep it going," he said.

Stevens, who by last week was refusing to meet with House conferees out of frustration over the F-22 issue, conceded that the scuffle over the program had been productive.

"They made a very good point, that is, that managers and those of us who support weapons systems can't be overconfident. I'm delighted we had this go-round, and I think the F-22 is a stronger [program] because of it," he said.

Stevens said the F-22 will face a congressional challenge every year unless it performs well in testing.

The senator said he would meet today with Air Force and Lockheed Martin officials to go over the new funding plan. It was unclear what impact the agreement would have on existing F-22 business contracts.

The Air Force and contractors had warned that anything short of full funding for six planes would nullify a contract the Pentagon signed last year for building the first two aircraft, disrupt hundreds of subcontracts and essentially destroy the program.

While the new spending plan includes $300 million to cover such problems, both House and Senate negotiators said they were confident that the program could remain on track.

Last year's contract committed Lockheed Martin to a certain price for the first production planes so long as the Pentagon bought six more planes, and sources have suggested that it should not matter whether those next planes are bought with production or research money.

"Air Force people tell me it should be able to go forward," Stevens said. "It must go forward. We cannot afford renegotiation of the contract at this time."

The price of the program also should not rise because of the new plan, he said.

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