Thursday, June 11, 2009

U.S. sees big obstacles to F-22 exports

U.S. sees big obstacles to F-22 exports
By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz cited on Thursday "very substantial" legal, technical and timing obstacles to future exports of the radar-evading F-22 fighter jet, built by Lockheed Martin Corp.
Senator Daniel Inouye, head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and other lawmakers have revived discussions about possible exports to extend the F-22 production line, given that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has decided to end U.S. production of the sophisticated fighter at 187 planes.
Inouye supports possible export of the fighter to Japan, which for years has expressed interest in buying the fighter.
Schwartz has testified to Congress that the military requirement for the F-22 remains at 243, but he told a Heritage Foundation event on Thursday that a smaller fleet of 187 would be "sufficient" and "adequate" for the U.S. Air Force to fulfill its mission of securing the skies.
Schwartz said there are substantial obstacles to exports, including a legal ban on F-22 sales overseas; technical issues that make revamping the airplane for export very expensive; and the issue of whether the production line would still be open by the time any exports were approved.
He said Gates has been very clear about his opposition to exports, even to trusted allies, and he doubts that position will change.
"The pragmatic obstacles are very substantial," Schwartz said. "The technical, legal and timing aspects of this are very significant."
Schwartz said the plan is for F-22s to operate in tandem with a much larger fleet of F-35 fighters, also built by Lockheed and eight international partners.
To make that program successful, it would be vital to reach high enough production rates of F-35 fighter planes to keep the price of the new aircraft competitive for the U.S. military services and foreign partners involved in its development.
He said annual production of the new fighters needs to climb to at least 80 airplanes, and ideally as high as 110, to replace aging U.S. fighters and keep costs low.
Schwartz also said he opposes any move to beef up current fourth-generation fighters such as the Boeing Co F-15 as a bridge to the fifth generation F-35, citing the need to "make the leap" to the new plane and keep the unit cost for those airplanes competitive.
Foreign sales of the F-22 fighter are banned under an amendment by House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey that was first passed in 1998; but recent North Korean missile launches and continued interest by Japan in buying the F-22 may be softening congressional opposition, particularly since the F-22 production line is now nearing a shutdown.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa, editing by Gerald E. McCormick)

Source: Reuters

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