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.

There is also a grass-roots effort: A website, PreserveRaptorJobs.com, encourages F-22 backers to send a letter to Obama arguing that shutting down the F-22 "would have drastic consequences for our economy and national security." And the International Association of Machinists, whose workers help construct the plane, has been vociferous about building more.

"The F-22 is just one example of probably a half dozen," says Keith Ashdown of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. "This is why it's so hard to ever cut anything. Every weapons system that the administration has a bull's-eye on, there's a fleet of lobbyists and companies organizing to stop that. Decisions to make military investments should be based on the need of the war fighter, not the politics of who benefits."

Lockheed spokesman Jeffrey Adams said in an e-mail, "The corporation supports those who support a strong national defense and educational activities."

The company declined to say where the F-22's supplier plants are. That data is proprietary, spokesman Sam Grizzle says.

Built to dominate

The F-22 program began in the mid-1980s as a replacement for the F-15 Eagle, the Air Force's crown jewel that brought decades of American air dominance. The plan was to marry stealth capability, advanced engines and sophisticated electronics to establish overwhelming superiority in air-to-air combat with the Soviet Union. Originally, the Air Force envisioned 750 F-22s in its Cold War arsenal.

Then the Cold War ended, and development costs for the plane soared. The Air Force reduced the number of F-22s it sought to 381.

But it still argued for the Raptor, especially as Russia and China built more sophisticated planes to better challenge the F-15. The United States, the thinking goes, should never have to worry about owning the skies, wherever its forces are in combat.

By most accounts, the F-22 delivers. Lockheed says one Raptor can take down 30 or more of its best adversaries at once. The ratio for the F-15, the workhorse fighter for the Air Force since the 1970s, is 3-to-1.

"It's an effective deterrent," says Larry Lawson, Lockheed's manager for the F-22. "People don't want to come out and fight it. It tamps aggression."

The warplane's radar and other sensors communicate with other Raptors and controllers on the ground, Lawson says, providing pilots with an unmatched view of approaching threats.

"This thing's a flying antenna," Lawson says. "We manage all that information for the pilot."

It's not, however, without flaws. A Congressional Research Service report in December noted several problems with the F-22, including software issues, a 2004 crash that destroyed one jet and faulty titanium forgings in 41 planes.

"The airplane is proving very expensive to operate; we're not seeing the mission-capable rates we expected, and it's complex to maintain," Pentagon acquisitions chief John Young told reporters in November.

Even some of those impressed by the technology question the need to build more F-22s. Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., of the House Armed Services Committee and a retired three-star admiral, wonders under what circumstances the U.S. would need to engage in sustained dogfights with a sophisticated air force. The last air-to-air combat by U.S. pilots were lopsided shoot downs over the former Yugoslavia from 1994 to 1999. In 2003, Iraq's air force stayed on the ground.

Plus, the military is moving ahead with the F-35, another expensive warplane built by Lockheed. While not as capable as the F-22, the F-35 is more advanced than potential adversaries.

"You say to yourself, is this a platform in search of a mission?" Sestak says. "If it is, how many do you need in search of that mission?" Sestak sees no need to build more than the 183 already paid for.

Former Air Force secretary Mike Wynne, who championed the F-22, says the country needs 381 to account for every contingency. Fewer jets could mean a disaster for ground forces similar to what the British faced at Dunkirk in World War II, he says.

"Quantity has a quality all its own," Wynne says. "No modern war has been won without air superiority, and the first time the American Air Force gets its (butt) kicked, our version of Dunkirk will be upon our Army."

Many in Congress agree. Forty-four senators and 100 members of the House signed letters to Obama arguing that 183 F-22s "is insufficient to meet potential threats."

Lockheed's lobbying

That kind of support is no accident. As the single largest government contractor, with $35.5 billion in government revenue in 2008, Lockheed makes sure its message is heard in Washington.

In addition to its staff of 36 lobbyists, Lockheed paid 41 contract lobbyists last year, records show, including former Indiana GOP senator Dan Coats, former Air Force general John Conaway and former FAA administrator Linda Daschle. Coats said he couldn't comment; Conaway and Daschle did not return phone calls.

Lockheed has also been a prime example of the revolving door between government and contractors. In a report last year, the Government Accountability Office counted 221 former senior defense officials working for the company in 2006. Edward "Pete" Aldridge, who was Pentagon acquisitions chief when Lockheed won the F-22 contract, retired in 2003 and joined Lockheed's board, where directors are paid a cash and stock retainer of $220,000 a year, SEC records show. None of that violated government ethics rules.

With F-22 suppliers or factories spread among 44 states, many members of Congress find it easy to support the program. After the economy soured, the company began placing new emphasis on the jobs argument, says defense analyst Loren Thompson, who consults for Lockheed.

For a lawmaker, there is little to be gained in opposing major weapons systems, he says: "The only people who really get motivated on this stuff are the people who have jobs and contracts in their districts."

One lawmaker who has gone after big weapons systems is Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who in 2006 sought to block what government auditors said would be a more expensive multiyear contract for the program. The Senate voted to fund the deal, 70-28. Among those voting with McCain and against Lockheed were Obama and then-senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Those in favor ran the political gamut from liberal Democrat Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts to conservative Republican James Inhofe of Oklahoma.

Lockheed employees made $3.1 million in political contributions to politicians in both parties in 2007 and 2008. But that was only part of the firm's efforts to garner favor. The company regularly makes charitable contributions to honor influential current and former public servants, a practice disclosed only in the last year under a new lobbying law.

Last year, Lockheed made three charitable contributions totaling approximately $140,000 in honor of Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, and one for $25,000 in honor of Gates, lobbying records show.

Morrell, Gates' spokesman, says the secretary is not influenced by contributions, lobbying or advertisements.

"No matter how many full-page newspaper ads the industry buys or how many lobbyists they hire, their expensive and elaborate campaigns do not in any way influence our procurement process," he says. "We evaluate programs strictly on the basis of whether they help us advance our national security objectives while also providing the best value to taxpayers."