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16 Dec 02. The $45bn F/A-22 Raptor programme, the US Air Force fighter plane once thought to be a target for Bush administration budget cutters, has endured an intense internecine battle for survival.

The Raptor programme, headed by defence contractor Lockheed Martin, looked set to be cut back to about 180 when Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary, launched a review of all weapons systems this summer. Orders had already been slashed from the original 650 in 1991 to about 300 planes by the first Bush and Clinton administrations.

But in the Bush administration’s proposed 2004 defence budget, to be published perhaps as early as this week, Mr Rumsfeld will request 200 to be built by 2009, maintaining current production. The additional 100 would be built during the following decade.

“They have essentially kept the programme as it is,” said one person who has discussed the decision with top Air Force officials. “Fiscal 2004 was the last defence budget where Rumsfeld could make changes before the presidential election season begins . . . the Raptor probably has survived for the foreseeable future.”

The highly manoeuvrable and stealthy Raptor was conceived in the 1980s to replace the ageing F-15 fleet to keep up with Soviet advances. But once the Soviet Union collapsed, critics argued the fighter was no longer needed, and three subsequent Pentagon reviews cut numbers.

The Air Force, last month, announced the programme had suffered cost overruns of about $690m. That may rise to as much as $1bn, defence analysts said. The overruns may affect the number of Raptors that are bought by the Air Force.

But people familiar with the debate said James Roche, secretary of the Air Force, put his reputation on the line and insisted that sophisticated air defence systems being developed by potentially hostile countries required a full contingent of the new jets. The Air Force hopes to have one squadron – 24 planes – of F/A-22s for each of its 10 expeditionary forces.

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