US to phase out Israel-coveted F-22

Gates's announcement is a setback to the Defense Establishment's hopes to obtain stealth fighter.

f-22 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
f-22 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced Monday that the Pentagon plans to end production of the F-22 Raptor, a top-of-the-line stealth aircraft that Israel has long coveted. At the same time, Gates said he would nearly double the allocation to $11.2 billion for the F-35 Lightning II, another stealth plane that Israel would like to acquire, as part of a budget plan he will be taking to US President Barack Obama. Obama is expected to review the budget and submit his own version for Congressional approval in early May. Gates's announcement, part of what he termed a holistic strategic shift in the Defense Department's priorities, decreases the likelihood that Israel would ever be able to obtain the F-22, foreign sales of which are currently banned by Congress. Some Israeli defense officials are hoping that the end of US orders for the plane will provide enough pressure that Congress - which doesn't want to lose the thousands of jobs the airplane's production provides - will reverse the ban on foreign exports. But Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments said that while Lockheed Martin would be sure to make that argument, he would expect that with the US ending its program, the jet manufacturer would start to shut down production. "It makes it very unlikely that production will get to the point of exports," he assessed of possible sales to allies like Israel and Japan, who also would like the technologically advanced plane. "To the extent that they had expectations, this represents a setback." Though the F-22 program is one of the most politically charged, and likely to have strong supporters in Congress arguing against the reversal, Krepinevich said he still expected Gates's recommendation to hold sway. He pointed out that the Democrat-controlled Congress is ultimately likely to approve Obama's budget and that any decision to fund the F-22 would come at the expense of other popular program. While Israel should benefit from ramped up F-35 production, which does not have the sales ban imposed on the F-22, the later-generation aircraft would only be available years after the F-22, and Israel's current strategic threats make stealth aircraft much sought after in the short term. Gates acknowledged that his decisions would invite a lot of strong reaction. "There's no question that a lot of these decisions will be controversial," he said at a press conference on Monday where he outlined his budget proposal. "My hope is that, as we have tried to do here in this building, the members of Congress will rise above parochial interests and consider what is in the best interest of the nation as a whole." He added that despite the backing the program had from some quarters, deciding to end the F-22 production "was not a close call," since the initial order of 183, plus an addition four budgeted in 2009, will be completed. "We have fulfilled the program. I mean, it's not like we're killing the F-22," he said. Gates characterized the budget shift as tailored to face the challenges of America at war with a host of players, many of them stateless and highly mobile, as opposed to the Cold War approach that long dominated the Pentagon's view of planning. The secretary's proposal also increased funds for several missile defense programs, including $700 million for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and the Standard Missile 3 programs, as well as $200m. to convert six more Aegis Combat System ships to provide ballistic missile defense capabilities. Israel is also hoping that the US will decide to spend upwards of $150m. on the Arrow 3 missile defense system, jointly manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries and Boeing in the US, but it was not immediately clear whether the budget would include the expenditure. The US could decide to help fund that venture alongside the Aegis and THAAD, or simply offer the latter instead. Both are developed by Lockheed Martin but deemed unpractical for ballistic missile threats Israel is facing primarily from Iran and Syria by Israeli defense officials. Even if the Obama administration doesn't include Arrow funding in the budget it gives Congress in May, the US House or Senate might decide to put in funding anyway. It is common for the legislature to add money for Israelis projects later in the appropriations process. Defense officials said Monday that even if the Pentagon decided to cut the funding for the Arrow 3, it was possible the Defense Ministry would decide to continue developing the project independently and without US financial aid. The THAAD and Aegis are also far more expensive than the Arrow, one official said, noting that each Aegis interceptor costs $12m. compared to the $1.5m. it costs for the Arrow missile. The officials speculated that the Arrow would continue to be funded by the Pentagon since it was a key program for Boeing. "If the money is slashed we will need to reconsider our own development of the Arrow, but it is possible that we will continue without American support," one official said.