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Lockheed urges quick decision on F-22 fighter

The incoming US administration must make a quick decision on whether to continue the F-22 fighter program, or risk beginning to lose critical suppliers, the Lockheed Martin Corp executive who runs the program told Reuters on Wednesday.

“Every day that this decision is delayed creates more risk, ultimately, for the supplier base,” Larry Lawson, executive vice president and F-22 general manager, said in an interview.

Congress, keen to maintain 25,000 jobs directly linked to the radar-evading fighter jet, has approved up to $140 million in bridge funds for 20 F-22s to be purchased in fiscal 2010, although the Pentagon's chief arms buyer John Young has only released $50 million.

If Obama's team signs on to continued production by March 1, Congress said another $383 million could be spent on parts that take a long time to make.

“This is a national leadership decision that needs to be taken, and need to be taken soon. If they do that, the supply base and all the rest of this will work, we'll continue production and the country will continue to get incredible capability,” Lawson said.

He said suppliers of titanium, structures and advanced electronics, were the most vulnerable to cuts because they needed to start work early for any new fighter jets.

Lockheed Chief Executive Robert Stevens last month said the F-22 line would start closing gradually in March in the absence of new orders beyond the 183 fighters already delivered or on order. Reopening it would be prohibitively expensive, he said.

Sources familiar with the situation say Lockheed has begun paying some suppliers out of its own funds to ensure that they continuing producing critical parts.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has agreed to stay on in his job, included four F-22 fighters or Raptors in a December 31 estimate of funds needed for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he said that was his personal assessment, and any final decisions would be up to the new Obama administration.

Designed to defeat enemy fighters and knock out advanced surface-to-air missile systems on the first day of a major war, the F-22 features the latest “stealth” technology to reduce detection by radar, but it has never been used in combat.

There has been debate within the Pentagon over whether continued F-22 production takes resources away from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a less expensive aircraft also produced by Lockheed, or whether more F-22s are needed until the F-35 begins to roll off the production line in larger numbers.

Lawson said the US government had already invested $32 billion in the F-22 program, which offered a lasting, huge advantage over other weapons, and it made sense to “continue to take advantage of that investment.”

He said production was going well, Lockheed had delivered two planes ahead of schedule, and about 20 “zero defect” models, a rare feat in the world of Pentagon procurement.

Lockheed had also driven production costs down by about 34 percent since it began full-rate production, and could offer substantial additional savings if the Air Force approved another multiyear purchase agreement, Lawson said.

The last batch of fighters cost about $142 million each, excluding development costs, and further savings were possible, he said, although he declined to give any specifics.

Top Pentagon officials say the Air Force is seeking to buy about 60 more fighters, which would bring the total to 243, and analysts with close ties to the Air Force say the service has moved away from its stated target of 381 fighters.

The analysts say the service is eyeing another three-year agreement for 20 fighters each year that would extend the output to 2014, when the operating testing of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is also being developed by Lockheed, is completed.

By one account, the Air Force plan is also eyeing a push to end a congressional ban on possible F-22 exports. Japan, Australia and Israel have shown interest in acquiring the F-22, designed to be the world's top fighter.

Lockheed officials generally do not discuss possible exports, leaving that to government officials.

But a company document obtained by Reuters mentions a possible first foreign military sale after 2014, and says exports would foster strategic partnerships with key allies, reduce their dependence on US forces, and preserve high-paying, highly-skilled jobs in the United States. “F-22 can be an instrument of US foreign policy,” it said.

Lawson rejected recent criticism of the F-22 by the Pentagon's top arms buyer, saying the company had met all the key performance parameters required now, and was on target to meet two further standards once the jet reached 100,000 flying hours, probably in late 2010.

Lockheed, the Pentagon's No. 1 supplier in terms of sales, produces the F-22 in partnership with Boeing Co and United Technologies Corp's Pratt & Whitney, which builds its dual F-119 engines. (Reuters)