- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2003

WASHINGTON, April 18 (UPI) — The U.S. Air Force wants to lift a congressionally imposed cost cap on its troubled F/A-22 fighter plane, and intends to go more than $6.7 billion over budget on production of the aircraft by 2009, according to service officials and congressional sources.

The ambitious F/A-22 program has been plagued by problems since its inception in 1986, but a senior Air Force official told United Press International that contractor Lockheed Martin is "within months, not years" of solving an avionics integration problem that has stunted the system.

Congress in 1998 capped the procurement program at $36.8 billion. The Air Force needs to spend more than $43 billion to complete its current buy of 276 aircraft, and wants permission to spend much more. Development so far has cost $21.9 billion.

Originally the Air Force intended to buy more than 700 of the supersonic and stealthy fighters, but spiraling costs have forced that number down multiple times. Right now cost estimates indicate the Air Force can only afford to buy 276.

The senior official said new efficiencies in the production line may be able to boost that number to 295. But what the Air Force is really after is a return to the larger production lots.

"I can make a case for the original buy," the senior official told UPI. "If they are able to get unit price cost down and we get performance up, it will become one of those programs that we love."

The F/A-22 has been troubled by its vertical fin, a weak horizontal tail, overheating and avionics software that failed or shut down completely during testing. Test aircraft were grounded last month because the landing gear on one aircraft collapsed.

Officials say the Air Force hopes to get permission and funding to build 381, which would allow it to fill out its fighter fleets plus have aircraft left over for other jobs and to replace planes that crash or are being repaired.

The F/A-22 is supposed to replace the F-15C and E models as well as the F-117 Nighthawk, the strike fighter that is customarily used in the very early days of conflict because it is difficult to see on radar.

The official said he expects the F/A-22 to be as much of a darling of Congress and the Pentagon as the C-17 is now. The manufacturer, Boeing, had to be bailed out by the Defense Department to ensure that the C-17 cargo plane would be built. After that rocky start, it is now generously funded by Congress and its cap on production has been lifted.

"We're hoping the same thing will happen on the F/A-22. It's absolutely awesome," the senior official said.

He warned that if the F/A-22 problems are not fixed, the next fighter plane - the Joint Strike Fighter - will be in similar technological trouble.

"The JSF is 10 times more complex. If they can't get this right, then they'll never get that right," he said.

The F/A-22 now comes in at around $200 million per aircraft, about $150 million more than the aircraft it is meant to replace.

The senior Air Force official said once the production line is modernized with an investment of $475 million over the next five years - and provided no more problems come up — the per-unit cost will drop to $124 million. He expects an even lower final price tag of around $85 million, depending on the number of aircraft produced.

The F/A-22 was the subject of a congressional hearing Thursday during which the General Accounting Office made its case for not only not lifting the cap but also reducing the next production lot from 20 to 16.

The GAO recommends the Air Force not push ahead with full-scale production until operational testing is complete, as the tests might reveal problems that are more costly to fix after the planes are built.

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