LE BOURGET, France—The U.S. Air Force pilots could barely contain their enthusiasm about the F/A-22 Raptor.
"It's really hard to describe because it is just so—good," one said, sighing.
"America needs this fighter, and I mean that wholeheartedly," another proclaimed.
They'd been talking on video about the Raptor, the most advanced fighter aircraft ever built and one that cuts to the heart of a heated debate about costs vs. capabilities in the U.S. defense budget.
That debate is on display at the Paris Air Show, along with the latest high-tech aerial weaponry. The video was part of a news briefing by Lockheed Martin, the American defense contractor that's building the Raptor in Fort Worth, Texas, and Atlanta.
Transatlantic tensions notwithstanding, the Paris show long has been one of the best places to see—or buy—some of the latest U.S. defense technology.
Take the Raptor, which Lockheed says could be ready for combat as soon as December. The U.S. Air Force loves it because it flies faster, shoots more accurately and is harder to detect than any potential opponent, assuring American air dominance for decades. In mock dogfights with the plane it's designed to replace, the F-15 Eagle, currently the world's leading fighter, the Raptors typically eliminate the Eagles before the F-15s can fire a shot.
But at up to $345 million apiece, the Raptor is considered by many experts to be an unaffordable luxury, especially since it's designed mainly for air-to-air combat in an era when the military is battling low-tech Iraqi and Afghan insurgencies whose most effective weapon is the jury-rigged roadside bomb.
Lockheed is adding a ground-attack capability to the Raptor, but the huge price tag, in the face of escalating Iraqi war bills and budget deficits, led the Pentagon to curtail the program in the latest defense budget.
"The F-22 is brilliant at winning the air battle. It really is Buck Rogers stuff," said Andrew Brookes, a former British Royal Air Force pilot who's senior aerospace analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "The question is, do you want Buck Rogers in the second decade of the 21st century, because who are you going to fight—China? Mars?"
The Bush administration budget proposal would cut $10 billion from the program and end production in 2008 after buying fewer than half the 381 planes the Air Force wants.
The Raptor also is competing for scarce resources with an even more expensive Lockheed Martin project, the F-35, known as the Joint Strike Fighter, which also is being built in Fort Worth. It's the largest and costliest fighter program in history, with a current projected price tag of $257 billion.
Lockheed, which beat out Boeing for the project five years ago, has been touting the F-35 aggressively in Paris, with giant billboards advertising the plane around the air show.
Two years ago, in what was perceived as an attempt to punish France for lobbying against the war in Iraq, the Pentagon boycotted the biennial air show and encouraged American defense contractors to follow. This year, the American generals are back, and so are the companies. Lockheed has 135 people here.
While Europe has no plans to buy the F/A-22, Europeans are big potential customers for the F-35. Indeed, in a historic first for such projects, the Joint Strike Fighter is being built with international partners: Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Turkey. Those partners put up about $4 billion of the plane's $45 billion development cost.
The F-35 will be a stealthy, supersonic, next-generation warplane, but it's not quite as nimble as the Raptor. It's more of a workhorse, designed for close air support on the battlefield.
It will come in three variants so it can serve the needs of all the U.S. services. The Navy will get a plane that can take off from aircraft carriers, while the Marines will get one that jumps into the air like a helicopter. The first planes are expected to come on line in 2007.
Like nearly every major defense program, the Raptor and the F-35 have been beset by delays and cost overruns. That's a particularly difficult issue for the F-35, because it was marketed as a more affordable way to built the next-generation fighter. In 2002, the Pentagon said the program would cost $192.5 billion—$64 billion less than the latest estimate.
In April, the Government Accountability Office, the investigating arm of Congress, questioned whether either program is still viable. Without recommending that they be eliminated, the GAO called for a major re-evaluation.
Cost overruns and a reduction in the number of aircraft the Pentagon plans to buy, from 3,000 to 2,500, have made the original F-35 business plan "unexecutable," said the GAO report to the Senate Armed Services Committee. It added that "significant changes in the F/A-22 program have severely weakened its original business case."
The report said the F-35 program would require at least $10 billion a year for 22 years. Development costs alone have skyrocketed from $20 billion to $45 billion, the GAO said.
Lockheed disputed the thrust of the report, said it had learned from its mistakes and promised that the program was on track. In Paris, Lockheed Vice President Tom Burbage and Brig. Gen. C.R. Davis, the Air Force officer in charge of the program, were upbeat.
The F-35 "represents the only affordable and effective solution," Burbage said. "I think the outlook is very positive right now."
The conclusions of the Quadrennial Defense Review, an ongoing analysis by the Pentagon of its strategies and needs, will be a key factor in the fate of both programs. It's scheduled to be finished early next year.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): news raptor
ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050216 FA22 fighter
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