Page last updated at 22:12 GMT, Monday, 14 July 2008 23:12 UK

Fighter jet faces budget challenge

By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News, Farnborough


The F22 Raptor fighter jet took to the skies at the Farnborough air show

As Airbus and the commercial arm of Boeing busy themselves totting up $25bn (12.5bn) worth of new aircraft orders, the military hardware makers are going for the kill. Literally.

During Monday's aerial display at the Farnborough airshow, Lockheed Martin's F-22 fighter jet was the only aircraft that had not been seen before at an international airshow.

And although its weapons were hidden inside the aircraft to aid its radar-evading capabilities, it soon became clear that this was a plane with a mission.

"Carrying weapons is kind of the business side of this job," says Larry Lawson, executive vice president and general manager in charge of developing Lockheed Martin's F-22 fighter jet.

"Being lethal is important."

Ability to be lethal

The F-22's aerial acrobatics lasted for more than a quarter of an hour, as it spun and twisted, roared and hovered, the pilot in charge of the single-seat jet - Major Paul Moga of the US Air Force 27th Fighter Squadron - clearly enjoying the sensation of total control.

On show at Farnborough 2008

"If you know the principles of flight, it defies that," gasped General Tan Sri Azizan, chief of staff of the Malaysian air force.

But to Mr Lawson, "the F-22 is not designed to be an airshow airplane, it's designed to be an operational fighter".

"It can fly very, very fast and still out-turn an adversary," he says.

"The ability to fly high and fast determines your ability to deliver weapons, to be lethal."

Future technology

The F-22 is arguably the world's most sophisticated fighter jet, a so-called fifth generation jet, hailed by US pilots in a promotional video showed by Lockheed Martin as excellent at "taking care of the air threat, paving the way for the bombers to get through".

Larry Lawson
Surviving is not enough according to Mr Lawson

Yet this plane is about more than that, according to Lockheed Martin vice president of business development, Rob Weiss.

"I'm not just talking about putting bombs on targets," he says. "In terms of technology, the future is here today."

The Mach 2 aircraft has extraordinary capabilities beyond simple dog-fights in the sky. It can also evade and battle ground defence systems, it is kitted out for surveillance and intelligence work and it is constantly being updated with equipment that allows other F-22s and eventually other aircraft attached to their operations to see what's going on in their battle space.

One pilot sees exactly what his colleague in another plane sees, and "they don't need to be close to each other", explains Mr Lawson.

Tight purse strings

But, as Mr Lawson points out, when it comes to warfare, merely surviving is not enough.

"An ability to turn fast and accelerate away means you survive more," he says, yet it is the ability to "chase down an adversary" that wins the battle.

Partners to the F-35 project may not want the F-22 to be sold outside the US

Similar sentiments are apparent in the ongoing US election race, where the eventual winner will be asked to find the money to fund the cash to fund a further 198 aircraft in addition to the 183 F-22s already approved - 122 of which have already been delivered.

And with each plane costing more than $140m apiece, plus development costs, it is a tall order, not least since there is no cash in the existing 2009 Congressional budget.

A decision may not come until January 2009, which means there will be a troublesome delay that will at best make the project more expensive.

A worse outcome, at least from Lockheed Martin's point of view, could be the scrapping of the F-22 project - the most likely outcome if the next president chooses not to order any more F-22s.

Survive and win

It is a scenario that gives Lockheed Martin's executives itchy feet.

"This type of technology is not only addressing the threats we are facing, but also the fiscal constraints," insisted Mr Weiss. "We need to recapitalise... a significantly reduced force structure compared with what we had 10-15 years ago."

An obvious alternative would be to sell the plane to governments other than the US, though that has been banned by Congress.

There are two reasons for this: One, the Americans are concerned about such a superior machine falling into wrong hands.

Two, selling the F-22 to others could upset the eight contributing members of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter family, which is already an unharmonious bunch.

It seems some nimble manoeuvering may be required for Lockheed Martin to secure the future of its flagship aircraft.

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