Friday, October 27, 2000

Problems resolved, F-22
fighter is ready for release

By Sandra Jontz
Washington bureau

WASHINGTON — The Air Force is scheduled to release the F-22, its next-generation fighter, in little more than a month after overcoming software and mechanical engineering problems, Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters said Thursday.

The F-22 Raptor is the air superiority replacement aircraft for the Air Force’s F-15 Eagle. But development of the high-tech, virtually completely computerized craft was slowed by seemingly simple problems, "like getting the brakes to work," Peters said at a breakfast meeting with defense reporters.

The stealth design of the dual-engine fighter, developed at the Aeronautical Systems Center in Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, couples supersonic speed with high maneuverability and is equipped with a weapons system for both air-to-air and air-to-ground combat missions.

But beyond the linchpin F-22 program, the Air Force is clamoring for more money from Congress needed to fund other projects, as are all the other services, Peters said.

He calculated that the Defense Department overall needs an extra $80 to $100 billion a year above the level of $288 billion that Congress already has appropriated for fiscal 2001 to meet current and projected requirements. The Air Force slice of that pie is about $71 billion.

Peters said he has heard cost-cutting rumors about the Joint Strike Fighter program, the Defense Department’s large-scale plan to build a common tactical aircaft for the Air Force, Navy and Marines, as well as the British Royal Navy.

"People have talked about canceling the Joint Strike Fighter," Peters said. "I say, ‘OK, let’s do that. Then, what do I do? Do I just let the F-16s age out?’ "

While the initial cost of the JSF might seem high, the focus actually is affordability. The program aims to reduce costs associated with development, production and ownership by developing a common aircraft that can be used by all the services.

The JSF would replace the Air Force’s venerable but aging F-16 Falcons and A-10 Warthogs. The F-16 fleet already is plagued by budget constraints that forces crews to cannibalize some planes to get working parts for other planes.

The Air Force shifted money for maintenance, which has left a shortage for infrastructure repairs. "Our roofs are leaking so that we can have spare parts," Peters said.

Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing are battling for the more than $200 billion JSF contract, to be awarded by the Pentagon in the fall of 2001. If the program stays on track, the first of the aircrafts are scheduled to be delivered by 2005 and be in full operational use by 2010.

Peters said the F-22 is crucial because rebuilding and modernizing the outdated planes such as the F-15 Eagle is not a logical or cost-effective option.

"There aren’t any cheap alternatives," he said. "Even bringing the F-15s into the modern world is an expensive proposition."

And a new presidential administration isn’t likely to solve the military’s budgetary woes, he acknowledged. Both candidates have vowed to do everything possible to make the U.S. military the best in the world, but aren’t putting funding behind the promise.

Vice President Al Gore has pledged to boost defense spending by an aditional $10 billion a year, and Texas Gov. George W. Bush has promised an annual increase of $4.5 billion, yet both figures are billions shy of what military officials have said they need, Peters pointed out.

Peters also briefly touched on several other issues facing the Air Force, including the development of space-based laser weapons and progress on the Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle program, which is scheduled to replace the U-2 spy plane by 2004.

The military isn’t likely to see a high-tech defense weapon system in space any time soon, Peters said. At minimum, such a system would cost more than $40 billion, funding Congress isn’t willing to supply just yet. Research and development alone would cost $300 to $400 million, he projected.

"I think we are not likely to have anything that can drop weapons from space or shoot lasers from space before 2020," Peters said.

Peters said work is continuing on development of the various pieces of the envisioned Global Hawk system. The aircraft is being designed to let commanders see enemy movements from great distances without putting pilots in harm’s way. In 24 hours, it can survey an area the size of Illinois, or roughly 40,000 square miles.