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Top general warns against ending F-22 fighter

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A top Air Force general, swerving from the Pentagon leadership, said ending production of Lockheed Martin Corp’s F-22 Raptor fighter jet, as proposed by President Barack Obama, posed a high risk to U.S. ability to carry out its current military strategy.

U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor fighter jets fly over Kadena U.S. Air Force base on Okinawa in this May 30, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

“In my opinion, a fleet of 187 F-22s puts execution of our current national military strategy at high risk in the near- to mid-term,” Gen. John Corley, head of the Air Combat Command, wrote in a June 9 letter to a senator.

“To my knowledge, there are no studies that demonstrate 187 F-22s are adequate to support our national military strategy,” he added in the letter to Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Republican from Georgia, where the plane undergoes final assembly.

An analysis by the Air Combat Command, which supplies warplanes to regional U.S. warfighting commands, “done in concert with Headquarters Air Force, shows a moderate risk can be obtained with an F-22 fleet of approximately 250 aircraft,” said Corley, who has announced plans to retire this fall.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has asked Congress to end purchases of the radar-evading F-22, the top U.S. fighter, on the stated ground there was no military need for more. With production capped at 187, the last would roll off the line in late 2011 or early 2012.

Defying Gates and Obama, the House of Representatives’ Armed Services Committee voted 31 to 30 early Wednesday to authorize purchase of 12 more F-22s with a down payment of $369 million in fiscal 2010, which starts Oct. 1. The provision kicked off a battle likely to last months as the matter comes to votes elsewhere in the House and Senate.

Gates, at a Pentagon briefing Thursday, said he had a “big problem” with the vote on the F-22. It has emerged as the preeminent symbol of pricey programs he aims to end in favor of spending on lower-tech arms for Iraq- and Afghanistan-type irregular conflicts.

“Frankly, to be blunt about it, the notion that not buying 60 more F-22s imperils the national security of the United States, I find completely nonsense,” Gates said.

On April 13, the Air Force’s top civilian and top officer, citing tight budget constraints, formally endorsed Gates’ proposal to wrap up F-22 production.

“This is the time to make the transition from F-22 to F-35 production,” Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and General Norton Schwartz, the chief of staff, wrote in a Washington Post guest column at the time.

The F-35 is a cheaper, but less capable radar-evading fighter, also made by Lockheed.

Donley and Schwartz did not make public Thursday their reaction to the assessment by Corley, a former vice chief of staff and senior acquisition official.

Instead, Donley, in a statement, said: “After carefully considering a full range of views and alternatives, including those expressed by Gen. Corley, we recommended to Secretary Gates that other priority Air Force programs should not be reduced in order to fund additional F-22s beyond the program of record.”

Top F-22 subcontractors include Boeing Co, Northrop Grumman Corp and United Technologies Corp’s Pratt & Whitney unit, which supplies the engines. With plants or suppliers in 44 states, the F-22 counts many fans among lawmakers, who ultimately decide which programs to fund.

In recent years, an Air Force push to buy as many as 381 F-22s has chafed the Pentagon. A year ago, Gates forced out then-Secretary Michael Wynne and General Michael Moseley, then the chief of staff, amid strains over their drive to buy more for potential conflicts with a country like China.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, a senior Democrat on the House Armed Services panel, said Thursday he expected Congress to fund at least 20 F-22s in the fiscal 2010 defense budget now under review.