Raptor in dogfight for its future

The Lockheed Martin lmt Fighter Demonstration Center, a few subway stops from the Pentagon and a short ride across the Potomac River from Capitol Hill, feels like a high-end auto dealership.

It's here that the giant defense contractor pitches its next-generation fighter plane, the F-22 Raptor. There's a simulator, PowerPoint slides and a video, backed by a soaring musical score, in which Air Force pilots rhapsodize about the fastest, stealthiest, most advanced dogfighter ever built.

The center is part of an intense persuasion campaign by Lockheed that includes dozens of lobbyists working the halls of government and millions of dollars spent to target decision-makers. In recent weeks, Lockheed has taken out full-page ads in Washington newspapers and magazines proclaiming that 95,000 jobs ride on the aircraft's fate. The company contributed $125,000 to various inaugural committees in honor of President Obama, lobbying records show.

It's not hard to understand why. At $191 million apiece, the F-22 is the most expensive fighter ever — and many defense officials, including Secretary Robert Gates, are ready to pull the plug on it.

For all its capabilities, critics argue the F-22 is too costly and irrelevant to the wars of today. They note that it hasn't flown a single mission in Iraq or Afghanistan. Yet, with plants or suppliers in 44 states, the program counts some of its biggest fans in Congress, which has consistently voted to support it. Taxpayers to date have bought 183 Raptors at a cost of $66 billion, including development.

President Obama is required by law to tell Congress by March 1 if his administration plans to buy parts to be used to build more F-22s; in coming weeks, he'll decide whether to phase out production or buy up to 60 more, the Pentagon's Geoff Morrell said Wednesday. Analysts say the jet offers an early gauge of Obama's willingness to make tough spending decisions and take on lawmakers in his own party.

"This is going to be a real test of Obama's ability to push back on the Congress," says Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project On Government Oversight, a longtime F-22 critic.

Without mentioning the Raptor, Obama promised in his address to Congress Tuesday to "reform our defense budget so that we're not paying for Cold War-era weapons systems we don't use."

Even if Obama decides to kill the program, lawmakers may try to override him, as they have several times with previous presidents who sought to cancel weapons systems. The F-22 saga promises to be the first of many such fights, because Gates has said he wants to spend less on big-ticket conventional systems, such as aircraft carriers and artillery, that aren't tailored to so-called small wars featuring low-tech insurgencies.

Those weapons have congressional backers in both parties, bolstered by millions in campaign contributions and a bevy of lobbyists that include former members of Congress, former generals and former Pentagon officials, records show.

Lockheed and four other main F-22 contractors — Raytheon rtn, Boeing ba, Northrop Grumman noc and United Technologies utx— spent $65 million on lobbying in 2008, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. Their employees made $11.3 million in political contributions to both parties in 2007 and 2008, according to the center's data.

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