WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert Gates Thursday said he was having "a big problem" with congressional efforts to restore funding for the F-22, indicating that a showdown is looming between the Pentagon and Capitol Hill over the future of the one of the Air Force's most advanced fighter jets.
Gates had proposed ending production of the F-22 Raptor and replacing it with the F-35 or Joint Strike Fighter, an unpopular decision among airmen who favor the aircraft and members of Congress from 46 states, whose districts benefit from aircraft construction.
He spoke after the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday approved $369 million for "advanced procurement" of 12 F-22s in the fiscal year starting in September.
Even some top Air Force commanders are backing the drive on Capitol Hill for hundreds more F-22s than Gates is seeking. In a June 9 letter to Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., Gen. John Corley, the commander of the Air Force's Air Combat Command, wrote: "In my opinion, a fleet of 187 F-22s puts execution of our current national military strategy at high risk in the near- to mid-term."
Next year's budget also includes $351 million for modifications to the current F-22 fleet. But a committee report noted that funding was provided in the current budget for the advance procurement of 20 F-22 aircraft, after which the Air Force announced its intention to buy only four planes.
"Therefore, the committee directs that the fiscal year 2009 money freed up by this decision be directed towards the requested modifications, with an additional $13 million authorized by the committee in fiscal year 2010," it said. "This results in a decrease of $338 million from the fiscal year 2010 budget request for F-22 modifications."
At the same time, the committee voted for $6 billion for 28 Joint Strike Fighters, two fewer than Gates sought.
Gates' proposed $534 billion Defense budget called for capping production of the F-22 at 187 and replacing the F-22 with F-35. Gates requested $11.2 billion to build 30 F-35s by September 2010, the end of the 2010 fiscal year. The F-35s would serve the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, unlike the F-22, which is intended solely for the Air Force. Lockheed Martin produces both the F-22 and F-35.
Gates has estimated that the F-22 produces about 24,000 jobs. By the time the last fighter comes off the assembly line in two years, he said, that would drop to about 13,000. Opponents, however, said the employment figures are far higher.
In a briefing to reporters Thursday, Gates said an effort by the House Armed Services Committee to restore funding for the F-22, "a big problem." And he said that statement by some members of Congress that eliminating the F-22 poses a threat to national security was "nonsense."
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