The U.S. Air Force's fledgling F-22 fighter faces a set of performance tests this summer and fall that could determine its immediate future, and consequently the future of Maryland's largest corporation and as many as 700 Baltimore-area jobs, government and corporate officials said yesterday.
Before the Defense Acquisitions Board will approve initial production of the F-22 Raptor - a decision expected in December - three more demonstration aircraft must be built, for a total of six.
And one of those aircraft must fly with an advanced version of the plane's much-vaunted radar and software package - a key step in proving that the plane can do what its designers say it can.
For Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp., the primary contractor for the Air Force fighter, production of the F-22 is vital to the economic viability of its airplane manufacturing business.
The Air Force plans to buy 339 F-22s, with a cumulative price-tag that could approach $50 billion.
And for Northrop Grumman Corp., whose Electronic Sensors and Systems Sector in Linthicum makes the F-22's radar, the aircraft would provide about $1.36 billion in business.
Northrop Grumman employs 300 people in Baltimore dedicated to the F-22, and expects to add 400 more employees by 2004 if the plane goes into full production.
"This is an important program for Maryland and this area," said Larry L. Lloyd, director of Northrop Grumman's F-22 program.
Northrop Grumman officials held the first public display of the company's F-22 radar system yesterday, during a briefing for reporters with Pentagon officials. Called the APG-77, the radar has more than 1,000 transmitters and receivers capable of performing nearly constant sweeps to search for and track multiple targets, while keeping an eye on terrain and other aircraft.
The radar system is a crucial element in the aircraft's promise to deliver "air dominance." Combined with the plane's stealth and speed, the radar and electronics systems are designed to let the F-22 command its airspace in combat.
But the systems have yet to be tested together on a real fighter, and defense acquisitions officials won't approve funds for production until they are.
The Pentagon will decide in December whether to go ahead with an initial production of 10 combat-ready planes.
Criticism of the costly fighter has increased in recent months. A former Pentagon fighter designer called the plane a "misguided" and overrated weapon that will provide only modest improvement over the fighter it is designed to replace, the F-15.
And critics continue to question whether the Air Force can produce the F-22 for less than the program's mandated maximum cost of $39.8 billion.
The Department of Defense recently estimated production costs closer to $49 billion.
And Assistant Air Force Secretary Lawrence J. Delaney said yesterday that a task force is studying whether production of the plane could be done more economically if it is moved from Lockheed Martin's Marietta, Ga., plant to another factory.
One factory under consideration is the company's facility in Fort Worth, Texas, where the F-16 is built.
While moving production could save money for the Pentagon, it would essentially close one of Lockheed Martin's largest facilities - which might have heavy political ramifications.
Various contractors have promised to reduce costs as development of the plane continues, and Air Force officials say they will meet their price limit.
For Northrop Grumman, which also makes radar for the F-16 and will compete to make systems for the proposed Joint Strike Fighter, the F-22 is considered vital to keeping its Linthicum division an active and up-to-date competitor in the fighter-plane radar business.
"The important thing, for us, about making a radar as opposed to making a bare airplane is that once you sell it, then you can upgrade it and improve it," said James G. Roche, president of Northrop Grumman's Baltimore sector.
"You can't all of a sudden decide to start making these things - you have to grow the technology."