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01 Apr 05. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Defense Department has approved Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F/A-22 fighter for full production, people familiar with the matter said, giving the stealthy supersonic jet the seal of approval just when the White House is targeting it for budget cuts.

The decision is a critical milestone for the complex and controversial aircraft, which has been under development since the Cold War and whose costs have soared. The green light could provide ammunition for advocates of the F/A-22 ahead of congressional budget votes and a broader Pentagon review of long-term acquisition priorities. That is because the approval by the Defense Acquisition Board, the Pentagon’s top procurement panel, is an endorsement of the plane’s capabilities as well as Lockheed’s ability to produce it at the rate and cost determined by the Air Force.

A Pentagon spokesman said only that the board met Tuesday and that a formal written decision is being drafted. Tom Jurkowsky, a spokesman for Lockheed, of Bethesda, Md., said the company hasn’t been officially notified of the decision. To maintain global air superiority, the Air Force says, it needs 381 F/A-22s, which can fly at supersonic speeds for prolonged distances. The F/A-22 “is really the only plane either manned or unmanned” that has both the speed and the radar-evading capability to counter surface-to-air missiles and advanced fighters being built by other countries, Gen. John Jumper, the Air Force’s chief of staff, told a House appropriations subcommittee last month.

Over the service’s objections, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and White House officials seized on the high-profile program to show their determination to rein in Pentagon weapons spending. President Bush’s latest budget proposes buying only around 180 F/A-22s and halting production at the end of the decade in order to save $10.5bn. Central to the swirling debate about the jet has been its cost. Critics say that including development spending, each F/A-22 costs some $250m. Air Force generals counter that going forward, the price tag will be about $110m apiece, not much more than the current top-of-the line F-15 fighter. The Pentagon’s approval is a boost for Lockheed, which had to overcome crippling software problems in the F/A-22.

Comment: Time will tell whether as we discussed in our October feature (BATTLESPACE UPDATE Vol.6 ISSUE 41, 30 October 2004, AUSA 2004 – BACK TO THE FUTURE) that the F-22 becomes the mainstay aircraft of the U..S. Armed Forces if the F-35 JSF project collapses. Sources close to BATTLESPACE have suggested that Lockheed could easily develop variants of the F-22 to met some of the JSF requirements.

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