December 13, 2005

Air Force Eyes Fleet of 183 F-22 Fighters

By Andrea Shalal-Esa

WASHINGTON -- Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley on Tuesday said he hopes to buy 183 Lockheed Martin Corp. F-22A fighter jets, four more than currently budgeted for, but still far less than the 381 the Air Force once said it needed.

Moseley said the Air Force would be able to pay for the additional jets by freezing further developments or "spirals" of the jet and rolling those funds back into the current program, with the aim of extending production -- now slated to end in 2008 -- to 2010.

"By freezing the A-model configuration, you're able to take a lot of the spiral development money, roll it back," Moseley told reporters after a briefing. "So you're not surprised with another bill down the road ... By doing that you can squeeze another four airplanes out and take you out to 2010."

He said the fighter, also known as the Raptor, would still be able to carry out the air-to-air and air-to-ground missions initially planned for the aircraft, including the ability to drop 250-pound, small-diameter bombs and 1,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions while flying at supersonic speeds.

With 183 jets, Moseley said he would be able to form seven combat-coded squadrons.

Asked how he could make do with so many fewer F-22As, Moseley cited the development of many capable unmanned aerial vehicles in recent years, as well as promising current work on unmanned combat aerial vehicles.

He declined to say what future capabilities would be cut from the F-22A aircraft, which he said was "within days" of being declared an operational part of the Air Force.

Moseley said the decision to cap production of F-22A fighters at less than the 381 the Air Force had planned to buy could increase the price of each fighter jet from the current level of $133 million.

That figure, which excludes $41 billion in funds already spent on research and development of the F-22A, could "go up a little," but would remain below $150 million, he said.

He defended the importance of the F-22A for U.S. troops in future wars, saying knocking out an enemy's air defenses would remain an important job.

Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne told the briefing he was committed to stretching production of the F-22A past 2008, when it is currently slated to end, until the Joint Strike Fighter, also being built by Lockheed, is expected to begin production.

He said there was growing acceptance of this idea, but not all decision-makers had given the idea their blessing yet.

Moseley said the Air Force had decided to remove the letter "A" from the first part of the fighter's designation, which had been renamed the F/A-22 under former Air Force Secretary James Roche to emphasize its ground attack capability.

"We have 'F' for fighters," Moseley said, listing current and past fighter jets such as the F-111, the F-4 and the F-16. "It should be in the lineage of the rest of the fighters."