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Senate vote grounds F-22s


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POSTED: Wednesday, July 22, 2009

WASHINGTON » The Senate voted to terminate further production of the Air Force's top-line F-22 fighter jets yesterday, giving President Barack Obama a major spending victory and siding with the Pentagon's desire for smaller jets better suited to 21st-century wars.

F-22 supporters complained the action would be a blow to long-term national defense—and cost thousands of jobs in the middle of the recession.

Lawmakers heard repeatedly from Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other senior administration officials.

The 58-40 vote to cut the money from a $680 billion defense bill was a hard-fought victory for Obama, who had threatened to veto the legislation if it included funds for more F-22s.

Hawaii Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka were among the minority of lawmakers who voted to keep building the planes.

The vote was “;a signal that we are not going to continue to build weapons systems with cost overruns which outlive their requirements for defending this nation,”; declared GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who joined Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin in arguing for cutting off production.

The $1.75 billion was aimed at adding seven F-22s to the current plan to deploy 187 of the twin-engine stealth planes. Of those 187, the Air Force has received 143 and is waiting for delivery of 44 more.

Gates, first appointed by President George W. Bush, wants to shift military spending to programs more attuned to today's unconventional wars. The F-22, designed for midair combat, has been irrelevant to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and unused there.

Gates and other Pentagon officials want to put more emphasis on the next-generation F-35 Lightning, a single-engine jet that would be used primarily to attack targets on the ground and would replace the F-16 and the aging fleet of A-10s. The Air Force plans to buy more than 1,700 F-35s, which are being produced in small numbers for testing. Versions of that plane, known as the Joint Strike Fighter, are also being built for the Navy and Marine Corps, another plus for supporters.

The defense bill has money to build 30 F-35s.

“;The president really needed to win this vote,”; said Levin, D-Mich., not only on the merits of the planes, but “;in terms of changing the way we do business in Washington.”;

“;I reject the notion that we have to waste billions of taxpayer dollars on outdated and unnecessary defense projects to keep this nation secure,”; Obama said after the vote.

Supporters of the program insisted the F-22 is important to U.S. security interests—pointing out that China and Russia are developing planes that can compete with it—and needed to protect aerospace jobs.

“;The Chinese are really anxiously awaiting this vote,”; said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Republican from Georgia whose state would be one of the hardest hit by the shutdown of F-22 production. The planes are being built by Lockheed Martin Corp., also a major contractor for the F-35.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, added that the F-35 is designed to supplement, not replace, the F-22. Supporters of the F-22 have put the number needed at anywhere from 250 to 380.

According to Lockheed, 25,000 people are directly employed in building the F-22; another 70,000 have indirect links, mostly in Georgia, Texas and California.

Jodi Rell, the Republican governor of Connecticut, said thousands of jobs were at risk in her state, where United Technologies Corp.'s Pratt & Whitney subsidiary produces F-22 engines.

“;In the midst of the greatest economic turmoil since the Great Depression—and at a time when Congress has approved countless hundreds of billions of dollars in stimulus funding and bailouts for banks and automotive manufacturers—I cannot understand why this relatively small amount of money is seen as a stumbling block,”; she said.

Levin suggested employment might be shifted to F-35s. “;We have to find places for people who are losing their jobs,”; he said.

While the vote gives momentum to the anti-F-22 side, a final decision must wait for the House and Senate to reach a compromise on their differing defense bills. The House approved its version of the defense bill last month with a $369 million down payment for 12 additional F-22 fighters.