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Fight over Raptor trims military's talons

Group of lawmakers was not able to stop production on F-22. But fight

It was a losing fight from the start.

The small group of legislators trying to freeze production of the most expensive fighter plane in history knew they could not possibly defeat the White House, congressional leaders from both parties, and contractors from 46 states, all of whom backed the F-22 Raptor.

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Yet, despite an imminent decision to continue funding the aircraft, challenges to the F-22 may have an enduring effect on the way the military spends money.

"This means that in the future there will be more requirements for testing and more hurdles [for the military] to clear," says a congressional aide close to defense appropriations.

The opponents of the F-22 have also made a strong case for realigning the defense budget - at a time when successful operations in Iraq and Yugoslavia indicate that US military superiority is well entrenched.

"To the question of whether we can afford that kind of technology in this era, the answer is, 'No,' " says Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

The Raptor is one of three lines of fighter planes to be deployed during the next two decades - at a cost of $340 billion.

After a closed-door compromise between congressional leaders, this year's defense appropriations bill is expected to allow the production of six F-22s, but only for testing.

Future objections to the F-22 and other ambitious military programs are likely to surface as long-range budgetary concerns approach.

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The debate over the F-22 began this summer when Rep. Jerry Lewis (R) of California caught almost everyone off guard and challenged the popular aircraft.

Representative Lewis, previously thought to be mild-mannered, used his position as the chair of an appropriations subcommittee to try to freeze the development of the F-22, a speedy stealth fighter that military officials say could dominate the air for decades.

After an enormous lobbying response by the Pentagon, President Clinton, and primary contractor Lockheed Martin Corp., Lewis was forced to back down. But for the military, the damage has already been done.

Lewis forced the Air Force to do more testing on the Raptor before real production of some 339 planes begins. Also, $1.3 billion is likely to be allocated for the project in 2000, not the $1.9 million the Clinton administration had asked for and the Senate had approved.

More important, Congress sent a signal that it would begin to pay more attention to military spending, and the military hinted that it would have to pay more attention to Congress.

"We will take a look at how well we did or did not communicate with members of Congress," says Maj. Gen. Claude Bolton, the Air Force program's executive officer for fighters and bombers.

Lewis was one of several congressmen and analysts who accused the Air Force of taking shortcuts on testing the Raptor in order to compensate for being behind schedule.

"The Air Force plans to enter production having completed significantly fewer flight test hours than they had planned to have done," said a 1998 report from the General Accounting Office.

The defense industry has fired back, saying national security could suffer if Congress continues to meddle in the nuts and bolts of defense appropriations, especially with programs that are part of integrated systems.

"The implications are great," says Bret Lambert, a vice president of DFI International, an aerospace consulting firm. "Congress has really gone to the core of the defense debate and usurped Pentagon planning. For defense-program planning, this is very dangerous."

The differences between opponents and proponents of the F-22 lie in diverging concepts of post-cold-war defense - and how big an advantage the United States has over its potential enemies.

Some analysts say the US can maintain its lead, particularly in the air, by upgrading its F-15 fighter aircraft, which have ruled the skies since the 1970s. The extra money, they say, could be used for less-glamorous needs, such as ammunition, spare parts, troop readiness, and chemical-weapons issues.

Military officials, however, counter that the F-15 can be matched by four other types of aircraft produced outside the US.

Also, they say, Russian-made air-defense systems have made great strides in recent years, at a time when military action increasingly takes the form of air strikes.

The F-22 is designed to avoid radar detection. "Within the next five years, these [air-defense] systems will make the F-15 vulnerable," says General Bolton.

The F-22, which has already cost $20 billion in research, has been in planning since 1981.

Forty-six states would be involved in producing the stealth fighter, which is one reason it has been popular since conception.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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