The House has recommended lifting a ban on international sales of the nation's most advanced fighter, the F-22 Raptor, a potential boon to Lockheed Martin Corp.
if allies such as Japan begin buying the expensive plane to upgrade their air forces.
On a voice vote after an 11-minute debate, House members on June 20 tacked onto the defense appropriations bill an amendment repealing a nine-year-old prohibition on overseas sales of the plane.
The ban was put in place to keep the Raptor's high-tech systems out of the hands of foreign governments. But with U.S. military orders for the jet lagging, members of Congress and some top staffers in the Air Force have become concerned that Bethesda-based Lockheed may shut down the plane's production line in coming years.
The $70 billion fighter program is one of Lockheed's largest, employing more than 4,500 workers in Georgia and Texas and bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue. The Pentagon has steadily lowered the number of F-22s it planned to purchase from the 750 it thought it needed to face off against the Soviet Union nearly 20 years ago down to 183. As with the older F-16 -- a fighter Lockheed continues to sustain through overseas sales -- foreign purchases could keep the Raptor in business.
The amendment allowing overseas sales was offered by Rep. Kay Granger (R-Tex.), whose district in Fort Worth includes a plant that makes the midsection of the aircraft, with a total of 2,640 jobs associated with the Raptor.
"I believe this provision of this bill is no longer necessary to safeguard our technology," Granger said on the floor of the House.
Lockheed executives and Air Force officials declined to comment.
Prospects of passage in the Senate, which will not take up its appropriations bill until next month, are unclear, though that chamber traditionally has been more tolerant of allowing international involvement in military programs.
Sen. John W. Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, appeared willing to support foreign sales of a modified version of the Raptor.
"My own advice is that we should consider manufacturing a model of that aircraft that would meet our requirements with regard to technology transfer, a model that would be foreign sales only," Warner said in an interview. "That aircraft, even if modified for foreign sales, would be a magnificent aircraft, believe me."
He noted that the military has had to make similar accommodations for foreign sales of other U.S. aircraft, including the F-16 and F-15.
Even if the ban is lifted, any overseas sales of the plane would have to be vetted by the Departments of Defense and State under the Arms Export Control Act.
Lockheed and some in the Air Force began making a case for overseas sales of the fighter early this year as the Pentagon lowered the number of planes it would buy to 183 to save $10 billion over the next few years. Until that point, Lockheed had expected to sell about 381 planes to the U.S. government. The reduction prompted Lockheed to say it would have to close the F-22 production line by 2011.
Any specific sale is likely to face concerns about the export of technology that is still considered sensitive. Congress has continued funding the plane, despite its increasing cost, in part because the Raptor's technology was considered worth sustaining. While Lockheed's other fighter jet, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, was developed to be exported, the Raptor wasn't.
The company has delivered 74 Raptors so far at a cost of $361 million each. The cost is about three times the original estimate, according to the Government Accountability Office. The planes are scheduled to be put into combat service early next year, following years of fine-tuning and training.
During the brief floor debate, the original author of the overseas sales ban, Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), said he was "significantly uncomfortable" with lifting it.
"I am certainly not convinced that we have reached the point where we ought to remove these restrictions," he said.
Selling the aircraft overseas also undermines one of the original justifications for the aircraft, skeptics say.
"The original justification for creating the F-22 was that we had already sold our most advanced fighter technology to so many countries that we needed a more advanced fighting capability. Now we're in that trap again by selling the F-22 abroad," said Jennifer Porter-Gore, spokeswoman for the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group. "This is when our national security interests collide with those of the defense industry."
Given its expense, the fighter may have a limited audience.
"This is an extremely high-performance fighter. Few air forces around the world are going to need it. Fewer will be able to afford it," said Gordon M. Adams, professor of the practice of international affairs at George Washington University.
Lockheed and the Air Force see a potential market among the United States' closest allies, including Japan, Australia and Britain, according to industry insiders and analysts. For example, Japan is expected to begin replacing soon its fleet of about 100 F-4s. Excluding development costs that the Pentagon paid early in the program, the price of the plane drops to between $150 million and $183 million, or even less for a stripped-down model, they said.
Foreign sales could also help defray some of the cost of the plane to the U.S. military and keep the production line going while the Air Force and Lockheed make their argument for more purchases to the next administration, said Loren Thompson, a consultant for Lockheed who also has close ties to the Air Force. Washingtonpost