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Wed, Mar 22, 2006

Raptor, JSF Issues May Mean More Orders For Older Fighters

Delays, Added Costs Might Spike Resurgence In F-15, F-18 Orders

Concerns over mounting controversy, production delays and added costs surrounding the expected next-generation of fighter aircraft -- the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (right)-- may result in more orders for the relatively aged Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet... and even Boeing's comparatively old-school F-15 Eagle.

While Boeing stands to lose a little, too, if the next-generation F-22 Raptor is held up further by development delays, it may stand to gain far more if that program -- and the JSF -- are delayed.

That's because delays on the newer planes have forced the older fighters to stick around longer than expected, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office -- and Boeing provides maintenance and logistical support on those planes. As evidence of the importance of such business, the logistics support branch is the fastest-growing segment at Boeing Integrated Defense Systems.

Such delays might also result in greater sales for the older fighters, as well, as customers worldwide grow weary of waiting for the new fighters. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that already, the F-15E Eagle (above) -- a much-modified version of the plane that first flew in 1972 -- has landed new orders with South Korea and Singapore.

As for the newer F/A-18 Super Hornet (right), the fighter is a mainstay of the US Navy, and is a contender for a third multiyear order worth several billion dollars. The Super Hornet is also marketed overseas, and is the US entry in a multibillion-dollar fighter competition currently underway in India.

The GAO, however, says that money spent on older fighters is, in a sense, money wasted.

"The funds used to operate, support and upgrade the current inventory of legacy aircraft represent opportunity costs that could be used to develop and buy newer aircraft," the GAO said. When it comes online, the F-22 is expected to be much less expensive to maintain than Boeing's F-15, to the point that one squadron of Raptors could even replace two squadrons of Eagles -- saving 780 maintenance personnel, according to the government auditors.

The GAO report also says the Pentagon's business case to spend an estimated $320 billion to develop the two new fighters isn't supported -- calling the F-22 program "unexecutable," even, as the Air Force alone needs 198 aircraft -- more than the Pentagon can afford.

"With due respect with their report, we don't agree with their conclusions," said John Kent, a spokesman for Lockheed's JSF program. "Without question the (JSF) possesses the highest level of technical maturity and the lowest level of technical risk."

To save funds, Lockheed already plans to begin production of the JSF in FY2007, with less than 1 percent of the flight test program completed, according to the GAO. That program is doable, said Kent, because due to digital design most of the plane's technical issues will be addressed before the first test flight takes off this fall.

Currently, the US military plans to purchase 2,443 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, to replace Air Force F-16s and A-10s, as well as complement the F-22 Raptor (above). The Pentagon plans to buy 183 F-22s, to replace the AV-8B and F-18 Hornet.

That's less than half the number of F/A-18s currently on order -- 400-plus aircraft, according to the GAO.

FMI: www.lockheedmartin.com, www.boeing.com, www.af.mil

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