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Fighter, copter programs in danger, Pentagon fears


WASHINGTON - The White House budget office has asked the Pentagon to provide independent studies of the Air Force F/A-22 stealth warplane and the Army's Comanche armed reconnaissance helicopter, triggering concerns that both programs face extensive cutbacks.

In December, as the White House was putting the finishing touches on a 2005 budget that fully funded both the F/A-22 Raptor and the Comanche programs for the year - at a total of about $6 billion - the Office of Management and Budget sent a memo to the Pentagon requesting the study. The total projected cost of both programs is $110 billion.

Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based think tank, said the wording of the memo clearly appears to threaten the programs. Two years ago, he said, the Air Force vigorously - and successfully - fought attempts to trim the number of F/A-22s from 275 to 180.

"I think the goal is to go back to 180 planes," he said.

Meanwhile, a senior Army official, who requested anonymity, said all the questions raised by OMB about the military need for the Comanche have been answered in previous studies.

Since the budget office is pressing the issue, the official said, it must be looking to scale back the program: "It comes down to money."

The stealthy and swift F-22 is an attack aircraft designed to replace the F-15. The Comanche is a high-tech armed reconnaissance helicopter slated to play an integral part in the Army of the 21st century.

The OMB memo, obtained by The Sun, asks the Pentagon whether the helicopter and attack aircraft can contribute to the Pentagon's goal of transforming the military into a more modern, high-tech force or whether both are "merely another step in the evolution of rotary wing and manned fighter aircraft technology."

The budget office also asks whether the international threat has changed since the inception of the programs and whether they "are still relevant."

Moreover, OMB said, an important part of the study should be an examination of a "variety of alternatives to the F/A-22 and Comanche, with an examination of the relative costs and capabilities of the alternatives, their effectiveness in the types of wars that the U.S. is likely to have to fight in the future."

Chad Kolton, an OMB spokesman, said the memo was not a veiled effort to cut both programs. Instead, he said, it was part of a regular collaboration with the Pentagon as officials begin to look toward the next budget in 2006.

"It's suggesting ideas," said Kolton. "Part of proposing ideas is to ask pointed questions."

The Pentagon had no immediate comment.

Critics of both programs - including some Pentagon officials - say that both the Raptor and the Comanche are too expensive and say there is no rival that can challenge the U.S. in the air, which makes the purchase of high-tech attack aircraft less necessary.

The Army's attack and reconnaissance missions could be handled by less expensive drones, said Andrew Krepinevich, a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

"It's a case where the F-22 and the Comanche are victims of the success of air power," said Krepinevich. Drone aircraft, which can spy and drop bombs, "seem to be promising." Moreover, he said, with the federal budget deficit now over $500 billion, "there's a lot of downward pressure on the defense budget."

Designed during the Cold War to battle Soviet fighters, the Raptor is the prime Air Force weapons system for replacing the aging F-15. About 275 Raptors - at a cost of $250 million each - are planned, with a price tag of $71 billion. Lockheed Martin Co. has built 24 F/A-22s so far, with 21 delivered to the Air Force. The company plans to build 19 this year.

The Comanche helicopter, built by Boeing and Sikorsky, is scheduled to go into production in 2007, with the first 19 delivered in 2009, Army officials said.

Initially the Army, which started planning the Comanche in 1982 to replace its current Cobra and Kiowa helicopters, wanted 1,200 of the helicopters. The number has since dropped to 800 and now to 650, with a total estimated cost of $38 billion.

The Army official, meanwhile, said that unmanned drones are "not a panacea" in warfare. The "natural curiosity" of a manned aircraft can develop more effective reconnaissance, attack and intelligence.

Moreover, the Comanche already is designed to work with two independent drones that will offer a wider view of the battlefield, the official said, adding, "Comanche fills a vital role."

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