- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 30, 2004

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Navy would retire one of its 12 aircraft carriers and the Air Force would buy fewer F-22 stealth fighters under budget proposals being discussed in the Pentagon, officials said yesterday.

Eric Ruff, a Pentagon spokesman, said he could not discuss specifics of the 2006 fiscal year defense budget to be submitted by President Bush for consideration by Congress early next year.

“The budget is not decided,” he said, adding that it would be unwise to speculate on final decisions.

Other officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because proposals are still being weighed, said it appeared likely that for cost-saving reasons the Navy would retire one of its 12 carriers.

The New York Times reported yesterday that under a Pentagon proposal the Navy would retire the Kennedy carrier next year and reduce the number of new LPD-17 San Antonio-class amphibious landing ships being built at a cost of about $1.2 billion apiece by Northrop Grumman.

Cmdr. Danny Hernandez, a Navy spokesman, said he could not comment on proposed program changes.

The New York Times was first to report on Wednesday that the Pentagon plans to curtail the F-22 fighter program. It said Pentagon officials already had informed the White House and members of Congress, and that the reduction reflects an effort by the Bush administration to find savings that can help offset the unexpectedly high cost of U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Pentagon is spending more than $4 billion a month in Iraq and about $1 billion a month in Afghanistan.

All of the military services are expecting to absorb program cuts for 2006, and officials said the Air Force is likely to achieve savings in the F-22 program by buying fewer than originally planned. It already has invested about $40 billion in research, development and early production.

Scaling back the F-22 program would not be a surprise, given that it has been discussed as a possibility almost from the start of Donald H. Rumsfeld’s tenure as secretary of defense in 2001. Mr. Rumsfeld stresses that modernization of the military should be measured in terms of capabilities, not numbers of planes, ships and tanks, as was generally the yardstick used during the Cold War.

The Air Force’s plan calls for buying 277 F-22s, although some have suggested the total might be dropped as low as 120. There also has been talk of scaling back another fighter program, the Joint Strike Fighter that is intended for use by the Navy, Marines and Air Force.

Mr. Ruff, while declining to discuss specifics about the F-22 program, indicated that it is not being canceled.

“We’re going to ensure that the F-22 will remain healthy,” he said.

The Pentagon spokesman also said, without providing numbers, that the overall defense budget for 2006 is expected to be higher than 2005’s $420 billion. Others said that while it may be higher, the rate of growth will be lower.

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