Clinton Vows Support for New Air Force Fighter

WASHINGTON – (July 22, 1999) – President Clinton threw his support behind the F-22 Raptor yesterday, saying it would be a mistake for the United States to abandon plans to produce the next-generation stealth fighter, which has become a target of House budget-cutters.

“We can fund the F-22 without compromising the basic priorities of our national defense and that is what I will fight to do,” Clinton said at a White House interview. “I think it would be a mistake to abandon the project. I think it has real potential to add to our national defense. I have always supported it, and I hope that it can be preserved.”

President Bill Clinton

The F-22 is designed to replace the Boeing F-15 Eagle as America’s front-line, air-superiority fighter, with deliveries to operational units beginning in 2002.

The House is expected to vote today on a $266 billion Pentagon spending plan that would cut $1.8 billion from the Air Force’s $3 billion F-22 budget.

The funding was intended to produce the first six Raptors. The remaining $1.2 billion would continue development of the F-22. The Air Force hopes to ultimately buy 339 F-22s, down from plans for more than 700.

About one-third of the plane is built in the Lockheed Martin Tactical Aircraft Systems plant in Fort Worth, TX.

Clinton’s statements were his first on the F-22 since the program came under attack last week in the House Appropriations Committee, where members said the Raptor’s growing costs and a series of technical problems led them to ask Air Force officials to re-evaluate the program.

The lawmakers, including Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., have said they want the Air Force to address readiness and personnel issues before continuing with the F-22. Clinton said the service should be able to do that without stopping F-22 production.

Air Force officials have said cutting production funding from the 2000 budget would, at the least, delay the program two years and add $6.5 billion to its $70 billion cost. Other officials have said it could kill the project. Administration officials said yesterday that they don’t expect to win the vote today but hope to find victory in a joint House-Senate conference this summer that will iron out the differences between Pentagon budget bills in both chambers.

The Senate defense budget plan calls for full funding for the F-22. “I fully expect the bill to get voted favorably tomorrow,” said acting Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters. “That doesn’t mean it’s the end of the battle. We are still working hard with both the House and Senate to try to find a way forward.”

Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, said supporters of the plane do not plan to offer an amendment on the House floor tomorrow to put the F-22 funding back into the budget plan. She said supporters have decided to battle in conference for the plane.

“It’s a better strategy to fight the battle there,” she said. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said there is little appetite among committee members for killing the F-22 program.

“I feel very good about Senate support,” she said. “We will have enough that the program is not going to have a setback or be delayed. I can’t tell you, though, that it will be the absolute full number.”

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said yesterday that his committee opposes stopping F-22 production. Stevens’ opinion is crucial for Lockheed Martin because he would be on the conference committee and would have to approve any cuts in the program.

“It is the keystone for our defenses in the next century,” he said. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also supports production of the plane. “I think beyond any doubt, it will survive,” Warner said.

“It is a program that is essential for America’s future defense. It’s as simple as that.”

The F-22 is designed to replace the Boeing F-15 Eagle as America’s front-line, air-superiority fighter, with deliveries to operational units beginning in 2002.

Stevens said that without the F-22, the Pentagon would have to rethink its air warfare strategy in the 21st century and would have to reconsider the planned retirement of the F-117 stealth fighter.

“If you were to take the F-22 out of inventory, we would be looking at a massive change in direction,” Peters said. “Air dominance has been the key to the joint force for many years.”

Auhtor: Michael D. Towle, The New York Times News Service

 July 22, 1999