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Monday, August 07, 2006

F-22 Raptor is go for launch



Fort Worth Star Telegram 08/06/2006
Author: Dave Montgomery
Copyright 2006

MARIETTA, Ga. -- The Government Accountability Office calls it a "case study" in cost overruns and schedule delays. But to the workers who make it and the pilots who fly it, the F-22 Raptor is more than ready to make its debut as a war fighter, although lawmakers continue to skirmish over its $130 million price tag.

Here at a cavernous plant not far from downtown Atlanta, Lockheed Martin workers churn out two Raptors a month along an assembly line stretching nearly half a mile. Model 083 will nose its way out by mid-August, joining a steadily expanding Raptor fleet now spread across four bases.

The Air Force envisions at least seven squadrons of 18 to 20 Raptors and has taken possession of 76 fighters. Future squadrons will be based at Elmendorf near Anchorage and Hickam in Hawaii to bolster U.S. security in the Pacific against potential threats from China and North Korea.

"We're ready now," said Lt. Col. Wade "Troll" Tolliver, commander of an F-22 squadron at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. "If the call and flag went up today, they could call us tomorrow, and we could deploy to anywhere in the world."

Built by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, the stealthy twin-engine warplane is widely portrayed as the hottest fighter in the world. It can "super-cruise" at one and a half times the speed of sound without gas-guzzling afterburners, reach a top speed of 1,500 mph and sniff out enemy airplanes long before being detected.

The Air Force considers it a top priority along with Lockheed's F-35 Lightning II, which is still in development. It hopes to acquire at least 381 Raptors -- far more than the current production cap of 183. Under the Pentagon's plans, production will end in 2011, but congressional supporters, echoing the wishes of the Air Force brass, hope to keep the assembly line open for at least a few more years.

The $65 billion Raptor program is also a mainstay for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, headquartered in west Fort Worth. More than 1,600 workers in Fort Worth build the midfuselage while Boeing workers in Seattle build the tail and rear section. The aircraft is assembled at Lockheed Martin's Marietta plant, where more than 2,000 are assigned to the F-22.

Since its inception in 1986, the Raptor has been plagued by design problems, delays and cost overruns, forcing the government to steadily shrink the planned purchase, originally projected at more than 700 models. Developmental costs increased 109 percent over a 19-year period, according to a report last month by the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigating arm.

"The program has been a case study in cost increases and schedule inefficiency in major weapon system acquisitions," said David Walker, the U.S. comptroller general, who heads the office.

Walker testified last month at a Senate subcommittee hearing headed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is critical of the F-22's rising costs. McCain and Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner, R-Va., oppose a plan that would fund the F-22 on a multiyear basis, saying it would limit year-by-year scrutiny of the program.

"It's always been behind schedule and over cost," McCain told the Star-Telegram last week, "but we always hope for the best."

The funding battle escalated after disclosures that the head of a think tank that projected a $225 million savings from multiyear funding serves on the board of an F-22 subcontractor. Retired Adm. Dennis Blair, president of the Institute for Defense Analyses, denied doing anything improper and said he had no direct involvement in the study.

Both the House and Senate have endorsed multiyear funding, but the issue can resurface when congressinal negotiators meet next month to resolve differences over defense spending.

Although the warplane has been a perpetual target of budget hawks and government watchdog groups, the Raptor has substantial support in Congress -- in part because hundreds of suppliers and contractors for the program are located in all but a handful of states.

Now, as the F-22 takes its place as the newcomer in an otherwise aging fleet of Air Force fighters, its boosters hope to close the door on the aircraft's troubled past.

"The F-22 program is not about looking back; it's about looking forward and at what the future holds," said Lockheed F-22 spokesman Joe Quimby, predicting that the F-22 "will be relevant for 40 years."

Initially planned as a super-hot dogfighter to replace the F-15, the Raptor has since been modified to attack targets on the ground as well as confront aircraft. There has also been talk of a two-seat bomber as the Pentagon moves toward developing a new long-range bomber by 2018.

The Air Force plans to assign two squadrons at Elmendorf and another at Hickam as part of a Pacific strategy to counter China's growing military buildup. The first of 36 planes destined for Elmendorf will begin arriving next summer, Gen. Paul Hester, commander of the U.S. Air Force in the Pacific, told reporters last week.

"What they want to do with the plane is to try to encourage the Chinese to continue to think about being an economic partner with America and not just think about being a military competitor," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a military research Web site.

Pike said that it is unlikely that the Air Force would dispatch F-22s to Iraq, where F-15s and F-16s are used to attack ground targets.

Its central mission, he said, would be to take out enemy air forces and demonstrate its "kick-down-the-door capability" on the first day of the conflict.

Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., said potential adversaries are now buying warplanes superior to the U.S.'s F-16s and F-15s.

China is increasingly manufacturing its own version of Russia's Sukoi fighters.

In addition to confronting a threat from the air, F-22s have also been equipped with sophisticated software and sensors and can be used to take out surface-to-air missile sites that have sprung up in hostile countries around the globe.

Tolliver, who commands the 27th Fighter Squadron at Langley, said F-22s performed in their first major war games in June, traveling 3,200 miles from Virginia to participate in Exercise Northern Edge in Alaska. Within a week, he said, Raptors scored 144 kills and sustained no losses.

"Every day, this jet just gets better and better," he said. "The more we fly it, the more we learn."

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