The Senate Appropriations Committee voted unanimously Thursday to approve an fiscal 2010 Defense spending bill that would allow the Defense Department to develop an export version of the radar-evading F-22 Raptor fighter jet.
While the committee bill, if enacted, would not repeal a decade-old law prohibiting foreign sales of the stealthy fighter, it would mark a significant step forward in opening up the Lockheed Martin Corp. jet to U.S. allies just as the plane's domestic production lines are winding down.
"It's a good next step," a Senate aide said of the F-22 provision in the $636.3 billion spending bill.
For years, lawmakers in both chambers have thwarted any effort to sell the F-22 overseas, arguing that exporting the advanced technologies in the fighter jet would pose a significant security risk. But proponents of exporting the plane argue that selling an export model of the F-22, stripped of secret U.S. technologies, would eliminate that risk.
House lawmakers approved a floor amendment to the fiscal 2007 Defense appropriations bill that would lift the ban. But export opponents in the House and Senate eliminated that provision during conference negotiations on the bill.
The Senate's language in the fiscal 2010 bill will likely meet stiff resistance from House appropriators -- especially Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., author of the 1998 ban on F-22 exports -- who continue to be concerned about the security implications of selling the F-22 abroad.
While the Senate bill maintains the export ban, it says the Defense Department "may conduct or participate in studies, research, design and other activities to define and develop an export version of the F-22A." The committee report accompanying the bill encourages the Air Force to use F-22 research and development funds to begin work on an export version of the fighter.
The House bill, which was approved in July, continues the ban and does not open the door to developing an exportable version of the fighter.
But the political landscape could be shifting a bit as domestic production of the F-22 comes to an end -- a development the program's supporters in Congress fear will lead to thousands of aerospace jobs lost in dozens of states.
Both the House and Senate already have approved versions of the fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill with language demanding the Pentagon report to Congress on the costs of developing an exportable version of the F-22 and any potential strategic implications.
Japan is considered the most likely customer for the F-22, particularly as North Korea continues its ballistic missile testing. South Korea, Australia and Israel have also have expressed interest in buying the plane despite a price tag that could top $150 million a jet.
The Senate is expected to take up the $636.3 billion Defense appropriations bill later this month.
Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said Thursday that his goal is to wrap up conference negotiations with the House and send the bill to the president's desk by Oct. 1, the start of the next fiscal year.