WASHINGTON – It used to be easy to tell the hawks from the doves on Capitol Hill, but the dogfight over Lockheed Martin’s prized F-22 Raptor has left even veteran budget watchers wondering where the battle lines are drawn.
In September, a House-Senate conference committee must decide whether to spend $1.8 billion for production of the first six Raptors. But traditional political allies are now pitted against each other, and former enemies have joined hands in a rare congressional battle over whether to kill a major weapons program.
“These are uncharted waters,” said Liesl Heeter, a defense budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank. “It makes it hard to tell what will happen.”
The House action last week to cut $1.8 billion in production funding for the first fighters was rare for a Pentagon project with initial deliveries just a few years away.
Pentagon budget watchers say it reflected concerns among lawmakers over the $70 billion F-22 program and its growing list of technical, budget and scheduling problems.
The last time a major Pentagon program was canceled was in January 1991, when the Pentagon halted work on the A-12, a carrier-based aircraft that had also incurred cost overruns and technical problems.
That move caused what was then General Dynamics, now Lockheed Martin Tactical Aircraft Systems, to lay off 3,500 workers in Fort Worth.
The conference committee members, who will include Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, must iron out a compromise between a House plan that would spend only $1.2 billion to continue development of the F-22, or a Senate plan that would allocate $3 billion for production and development.
“I think the money will be there for the F-22,” said Hutchison, a member of the Senate Appropriations committee and its subcommittee that crafts the Senate’s Pentagon spending bill.
“The Air Force says it is their highest priority,” she said. “I don’t think we can take precipitous moves like this. The F-22 has shown itself to be worthy of the next generation of fighters.”
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, the committee’s chairman, agrees, as does Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“Everyone said the B-2 was too expensive, but the B-2 was an incredible performer in the Kosovo situation,” Hutchison said. “It paid for itself time and time again.”
House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Irving, said he also expects the conference committee to find a way to keep the program on track.
“The F-22 is a better-than-average fighter with a better-than-average fighting chance,” he said. “The Air Force is fighting for the aircraft. It’s an unqualified priority on their part. They are making an enormous effort.”
Armey is joined in that opinion by Rep. Martin Frost, D-Dallas, the third-ranking Democrat in the House, whose job it is, as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, to unseat him.
“Clearly, the F-22, long-term, is of critical importance,” said Frost, who recently discussed F-22 issues with President Clinton.
At stake is the Air Force’s 21st-century strategy, which was to combine the supercharged and highly capable F-22 with the emerging joint strike fighter, an aircraft now in development that is expected to replace the F-16 as the Air Force’s primary air-to-ground workhorse.
But also on the line are the political fortunes of several powerful House members, many of them hawkish Republicans, who are being applauded by dovelike Democrats for going after a big-dollar weapons programs.
Those lawmakers want more money spent on personnel by the Air Force and less on high-cost aircraft, an argument often framed as “boys vs. toys.”
Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that first proposed killing initial production funds for the F-22, said the committee wants the Air Force to look closely at its priorities and determine whether the F-22 is taking up too much room.
“The Air Force has such tremendous needs in so many other areas – air tankers, airlift transports, aerial reconnaissance – that we believe it is imperative for the Air Force to reassess its priorities,” said Lewis, who is among the most hawkish of Republicans.
In his camp is Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., a liberal Democrat who for years has complained about Pentagon budget excess.
The Air Force is “in the same boat as a lot of American families,” Obey said. “They may want to buy a Cadillac or a Mercedes, but in the end they may have to compromise and buy a Chevy or a Ford.”
To bolster their cause, Lewis and his supporters produced a defense bill that gives something back to each district that would take a hit from the cancellation of initial F-22 production.
For example, the bill added five Fort Worth-made F-16s to the 10 the Clinton administration had asked for. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, admits she would like to keep the additional F-16s as well as produce the first six Raptors.
“I think we can do what is right for the Air Force now and what is right for the future,” she said.
Lewis’ move could make it more difficult for negotiators in conference, observers said, because lawmakers will then have to considering cutting the funding added for the F-16, F-15 and KC-130J air tanker planes that were not in the Clinton administration’s proposed budget.
“One of the things that’s going to make compromise difficult is that when you move funding elsewhere you start splitting your allies up,” said Heeter, the budget analyst.
Some resolutions being discussed, according to sources on Capitol Hill, include retaining the $1.8 billion in production money while lowering the overall F-22 purchase from the 339 now planned.
Another idea tossed out frequently would include forgoing production funding in 2000 but including advanced money for the purchase of the six to eight Raptors in 2001.
A third proposal would “fence” funding for the program, which means the production funding would be included in the budget, but Lockheed Martin and the Air Force would have to meet strict guidelines for production and evaluation.
Michael D. Towle, (202) 383-6104 firstname.lastname@example.org
Knight Ridder News Service
July 28, 1999