Loyal F-22 booster undeterred by weakened campaign

As the F-22 Raptor's once-strong coalition of supporters off the Hill begins to crumble, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said Wednesday he will continue to push to secure funding for 60 more of the stealthy Air Force fighters.

The F-22, which is assembled in Marietta, Ga., has long enjoyed the backing of Air Force leaders, dozens of lawmakers and Lockheed Martin Corp. and its legion of suppliers across the country - a formidable group that was widely expected to fight Defense Secretary Robert Gates' decision this month to end production at 187 F-22s, nearly 60 fewer than the Air Force had wanted.

But on Tuesday, a senior Lockheed Martin executive told investors the company has had a "full hearing" of its campaign for 60 more F-22s and signaled that the firm would cease efforts to push for more.

"We're disappointed by the decision, but we'll accept those and go on," said Brian Tanner, Lockheed Martin's chief financial officer.

In a statement Wednesday, Lockheed Martin officials reiterated their disappointment, but added: "We will fully support our U.S. government's final decision."

Air Force leaders, who have long campaigned to buy more F-22s, dealt another blow by publicly backing Gates' decision on the fighter, which was announced April 6 as part of a sweeping change of priorities in the Pentagon's fiscal 2010 budget request.

But Chambliss, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the military requirement stands at 243 F-22s and vowed to continue pushing for the aircraft.

"Is it going to be a tough fight? You bet it is," Chambliss said. "It was going to be uphill before the secretary's announcement and we know it's going to be more difficult."

Meanwhile, Chambliss took issue with any suggestion Lockheed Martin was acquiescing to the Defense secretary on the F-22 program.

"They did say that the secretary made a decision and they accept the secretary's decision," he said. "But what they didn't say was we're totally conceding the issue and they made that very plain to me."

But Chambliss acknowledged that Lockheed Martin would not be as active as it had been the last several months, largely because the Air Force is no longer fighting for a larger F-22 fleet.

"I think Gates and company have made it very clear what is expected of everybody regarding the F-22," said Richard Aboulafia, an aircraft analyst at the Teal Group. "That leaves Congress as the only wild card. If they can get the Air Force to fall in line, the companies had absolutely no choice but to fall in line."

Lockheed Martin, the country's largest defense contractor, would walk a political tightrope by publicly opposing Gates' plan for the F-22.

The company's expansive defense portfolio includes the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the largest single program on the Pentagon's books. The Pentagon wants $11.2 billion for the F-35 in fiscal 2010, up from $6.8 billion this year.

Gates said during a visit to Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama last week that he wants to accelerate the "development and testing regime" of the F-35 to correct lingering problems with the program. The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps will combine to buy 2,443 of the fighters, with more to be sold internationally.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said he understands Lockheed Martin's precarious position balancing the F-22 and the F-35, which is assembled in Fort Worth, Texas.

"They don't want to hurt their cause," Isakson said. "They got both contracts."

Regardless of the outcome of the F-22 battle, both Chambliss and Isakson said they have assurances from Lockheed Martin that the 2,000 F-22 workers at the Marietta plant will not be laid off after production ends in early 2012.

They said F-22 workers could transition to the C-130J cargo aircraft production line or work on C-5 Galaxy modernization program, both of which are based in Marietta. They also said some of the Joint Strike Fighter work could move to Marietta to stave off any job losses.

"Jobs is probably not going to be an issue," Chambliss said.

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