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High-tech fighter jet faces fight to fit in

Loved by pilots and Air Force brass, the high-tech F/A-22 Raptor fighter jet faces an unclear future as the Pentagon decides where the promising and expensive plane fits in its vision of future warfare.
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Thirty minutes after punching through the clouds over the Chesapeake Bay, Lt. Col. James Hecker reared up the nose of his F/A-22 Raptor fighter jet, like a snake preparing to strike, and skidded across the sky. The novel move gives the Raptor an advantage in the close-in dogfights the Air Force wants to avoid.

"We prefer shooting and killing them before they know we're there, but that [maneuver] works too," said Hecker, also known as "Scorch," the commander of Langley's 27th Fighter Squadron, after the recent training flight.

Bird without a mission?
The Raptor is a fighter pilot's dream. It is nearly impossible to detect by radar and its cruising speed is more than 1,000 miles an hour, twice that of most potential rivals. Most fighters have sensors to spot the planes in front of them. The cockpit of the Raptor is reminiscent of a video game, taking a 360-degree picture and splashing it on an eight-inch screen while an onboard computer helps the pilot decide what to strike first.

"It's like having a God's-eye view of what's out there," Hecker said. "There is not a pilot who has flown the Raptor that isn't in love."

The question facing the Pentagon and Congress is whether the Raptor's superior abilities, and the affection of pilots and Air Force leaders, is enough to justify a more than $70 billion investment at the same time the military is stretched thin by ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Critics contend that the Air Force, long dominated by fighter pilots, is exaggerating the threat it faces from enemy fighters at a time when warfare has changed and low-tech weapons such as shoulder-fired missiles are a greater threat. The service, they say, should be deploying more unmanned aircraft and replacing an aging bomber fleet.

The Raptor is months away from being declared war-ready, but the Pentagon is still trying to decide where it fits in its vision of future warfare. The Bush administration has proposed cutting $10 billion from the program over the next five years, leaving enough to buy fewer than half the 381 planes the Air Force says it needs. And the plane will have to compete, in an age of budget deficits, with plans to refurbish the Army and fund an even more expensive fighter program, the Joint Strike Fighter, which is still years from delivery.

Envisioning future battleground
How many Raptors the Pentagon buys -- no one expects the program to be killed -- is part of a debate over what kind of wars the nation's leaders should fear most: a large-scale battle with another industrial power, where the Raptor could dominate, or skirmishes in rogue states such as Iran or Syria, where ground forces would lead.

The Air Force and Lockheed Martin Corp., the main contractor, say the Raptor is essential in either scenario. They tout it as an insurance policy in any conflict against China or a resurgent Russia, and to counter increasingly sophisticated surface-to-air missiles with longer range and better targeting capabilities. "We have made it look so easy for so long, people don't realize how hard it is to establish air dominance," Brig. Gen. S. Taco Gilbert III, the Air Force's deputy director of strategic planning, said in an interview. "Iraq is not a good example of what we'll see in the future."

Economic stakes, too
The aging fleet of F-15 Eagles, which the Raptor will replace, is being bypassed technologically, Gen. John P. Jumper, the Air Force chief of staff, said in a recent interview in his Pentagon office.

Citing the latest planes being developed in Europe and Russia, he said, "I do not relish the idea of some of the technology I saw in the Eurofighter . . . in the hands of certain nations. I think certain models of the [Russian built] Sukhoi are already superior to the F-15."

The Eagle "may be the best fighter in the world right now, but it's losing that technical advantage," Jumper said.

The Air Force stresses that the Raptor has evolved from its original mission of facing off against other fighters to also attacking ground targets and gathering intelligence. "Everybody thinks this is all about dogfighting; it's really not about dogfighting, it's about being able to penetrate contested airspace and gathering information in that contested airspace," Jumper said.

The program also is an economic engine, with 1,000 suppliers -- and many jobs -- in 42 states guaranteeing solid support in Congress. Lockheed alone has 4,500 employees working on the plane in plants in Texas and Georgia.

The cost of producing the plane will fall with time, said Larry Lawson, the program's manager at Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin. Preserving the manufacturing line also creates the possibility of the Air Force ordering different versions of the aircraft later, perhaps even a bomber model, he said. "If we abruptly end Raptor production [early], we're basically making a decision that we can't recover from. We can't start production again," Lawson said.

Changing face of warfare
Critics counter that the nature of war has evolved away from the Raptor.

"The Air Force's real strength no longer is the airplanes. The good old days of two incredibly maneuverable planes dogfighting are over and have been overtaken by data links, computers and satellites," said Richard L. Aboulafia, aviation analyst for Teal Group Corp., a research firm. Most potential enemies, including China, don't have tankers, which can refuel fighters in mid-flight, or Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) planes that can detect cruise missiles or enemy fighters, he said.

Despite expanding the Raptor's missions, it is still primarily an air-to-air fighter and it will be years before it gains significant new capabilities to hit ground targets, skeptics note.

"It's a great thing, but it does not address the challenges that we face," Earl H. Tilford, a 21-year Air Force veteran and military history professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, said of the Raptor. "The real threat is on the low end, from terrorism, criminal cartels, state-sponsored terrorism, and that's where the bulk of the energy" should be spent.

The Air Force could buy a "handful" of the new fighters to hedge against a conflict with China, where the Raptor could evade advanced surface-to-air missiles and penetrate the country's borders, said Robert A. Pape, professor of political science at the University of Chicago and author on the use of air power. Any money saved should be used for unmanned aircraft and laying the ground work for a new bomber, he said.

Concerns over reliability
Whatever the outcome of the funding debate, Langley will be the staging point for the Raptor's first combat-ready squadron, and that sends ripples of excitement throughout the base near Norfolk. "We're the first to deploy," said Master Sgt. Renee Daig, who runs an $18 million facility built to maintain the plane's stealth skin. "That's where it's all at."

Recently, a Raptor training flight was delayed for a day when a faulty sensor was discovered on one of the two planes now housed at the base. The replacement took only a few hours, but because it involved removing a panel on the jet's outer surface, part of the plane had to be repainted in Daig's shop and allowed to dry overnight. Any such piercing of the plane's smooth exterior must be carefully repaired, including applying a new coat of paint, to ensure it retains the stealth quality that lets it avoid radar detection.

A recent Government Accountability Office report said test officials identified reliability and maintenance issues with the plane's "critical low observable," or stealth, characteristics. The Air Force said it has fixed those problems.

During a training flight the next day, Hecker faced another problem, a glitch in the complicated software system that pilots say they notice when the radar freezes or a screen goes black. It is more an annoyance than a danger, they said.

Hecker had predicted it during a pre-flight briefing: "If I have to do an avionics restart, realize it will be a few minutes" before the systems are working again.

While earlier versions of the software sometimes needed to be restarted every two hours, the Air Force says such problems can be expected in any new plane, and the latest version operates at least eight hours without glitches. The new software, expected to be in the Langley fighters soon, is more reliable, Hecker said later. "In two months, we'll be really happy."

Turbulent bureaucratic flight
The Raptor has proved survivable in Washington's bureaucratic wars. Conceived in the 1980s after President Reagan dubbed the Soviet Union the "evil empire," its justification seemed to collapse along with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet state.

In a sneak attack in 1999, the House Appropriations Committee blocked nearly $2 billion in production funding for the plane after leaders expressed concern that the Air Force was spending too much on tactical aircraft while shortchanging other service priorities. The plane's supporters won that year, but the road since has been marked by delays and technical problems.

In 2002, the Air Force gave the Raptor a makeover, adding the "A" to F-22, and touting added capabilities for attacking ground targets. The changes are estimated to add billions to the program's cost and take years to complete.

The Raptor's new focus opened a new line of criticism. "It appears by making the F/A-22 more of a multi-role combat aircraft, the Air Force is blurring the distinction between the Raptor and Joint Strike Fighter," a recent Congressional Research Service report on the program noted. In fact, the cheaper F-35 strike fighter will have a "superior payload," carrying 14,600 pounds of bombs compared with the Raptor's 2,000, the report said.

Hard lessons learned
As the number of Raptors expected to be purchased drops -- from 750 to as few as 178 -- the price has escalated dramatically from the original price tag of $35 million. That has prompted some to advocate the continued purchase of F-15s.

The Air Force dismisses that option as uneconomical. But officials working on the Quadrennial Defense Review, a major rethinking of U.S. military strategy that will help determine how many Raptors are produced, have asked Boeing how much it would cost to build more than 100 new F-15s, according to sources familiar with the process.

Jumper acknowledges that the Air Force has made mistakes with the Raptor, including not setting aside enough funds for developing its software. "I think we've got to take these lessons and apply them to the Joint Strike Fighter, so we don't make the same mistakes again," he said. The Raptor and the strike fighter share elements of their avionics, engines and stealth capabilities.

The cost of the strike fighter program, the largest in Pentagon history, has increased to $240 billion for more than 2,000 planes and has fallen a year behind schedule.

To watch an interview with an F/A-22 pilot and to see the plane in flight, go to . Staff writer Renae Merle will be online at 11 a.m. today to discuss this article. Go to .