By Emelie Rutherford

More than 200 lawmakers, including nearly half of Congress’ sitting senators, are pleading with newly inaugurated President Barack Obama to continue production of the Air Force’s F-22 stealth fighter.

In addition, questioned remained last week about the financial impact of the Pentagon’s decision late last year to spend only a portion of the monies Congress authorized and appropriated for parts for any future Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-22s.

Defense Department leaders hesitated at the end of President Bush’s term to continue the F-22 production line far beyond the 183 aircraft ordered, supporting buying just four more aircraft in the next supplemental war-funding bill while leaving the line’s fate to Obama’s new team. Congress has directed the new president to decide no later than March 1 whether to continue or terminate production of the sophisticated aircraft, which detractors note has never been used in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a defense appropriator, and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), a defense authorizer, along with 42 other senators sent Obama a letter on the eve of his inauguration weekend arguing additional F-22s are needed for executing military strategy and protecting jobs.

More than 170 House members had signed on to a similar pro-F-22 letter as of last Friday afternoon, when Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) continued gathering signatures on the missive he planned to send to Obama this week, the congressman’s spokesman said.

“The F-22 is optimized to achieve the air dominance necessary to protect our joint fighting forces in any future conflict,” Sens. Murray and Chambliss state in their Jan. 16 letter, arguing a fleet of 183 F-22s is insufficient and Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter cannot fill the gap.

“The F-22 program annually provides over $12 billion of economic activity to the national economy, it fulfills a validated Air Force requirement, and it helps to sustain our strong national defense industrial base,” the senators’ letter says. “If this certification is not provided, layoffs will begin as this critical supplier base shuts down, and it will quickly become expensive or perhaps impossible to reconstitute in the event the Department of Defense chooses to procure additional F-22’s at a later date.”

Murry and Chambliss’ letter is co-signed by 42 senators, including Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee (SAC-D) members Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), and Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas), along with more than a dozen Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) members, including Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Joseph Lieberman (I/D-Conn.), Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).

Lawmakers battled with the Bush Defense Department late last year over buying long-lead components for future F-22s.

The heads of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), House Appropriations Defense subcommittee (HAC-D), and SAC-D, as well as some SASC Republicans, sent letters calling for the Pentagon to order parts last November for 20 F-22s that could eventually be purchased in FY ’10.

Instead, to the lawmakers’ frustration, the Air Force awarded a contract last November for the advance buy of components for four aircraft and the Pentagon agreed to buy titanium for up to 20 F-22s that could also be used on other aircraft. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who remains in Obama’s administration, also confirmed in December he wants full-procurement funding for four F-22s included in the next war supplemental.

The fiscal year 2009 defense authorization and appropriations acts together approve spending $140 million in advance-procurement monies for components for 20 future F-22s. The authorization measure states after approval from Obama no later than March 1 another $383 million can be spent on the long-lead parts.

After the Pentagon opted to obligate only $50 million, for parts for the four instead of 20 F-22s, angry lawmakers said delaying the buy for the 16 aircraft will add hundreds of millions of dollars in procurements costs, if the F-22s ultimately are purchased (Defense Daily, Nov. 20, 2008).

HASC leaders wrote to Gates last November asking him to explain conflicting accounts on whether such a delay would indeed generate added costs. They noted a Lockheed Martin proposal showed the Pentagon’s four-plus-16 strategy would cost “significantly” more than buying parts for all 20 aircraft late last year, provided the aircraft ultimately are purchased. Yet Pentagon officials testified in a hearing last November that Lockheed Martin material showed delaying the components purchase for the 16 aircraft would not spur added costs; congressional aides and industry sources subsequently said the defense officials’ testimony was not accurate.

Gates in a Jan. 9 letter responding to the HASC leaders simply reiterated that the Lockheed Martin estimates show the four-plus-16 strategy costs no more than buying parts for all 20 aircraft (Defense Daily, Jan 13.)

“The (Defense) Department’s response does not answer the question posed in the HASC letter,” a House staffer said last week about the Jan. 9 letter from Gates. “It was clear in testimony and information provided to the committee by DoD that there is a big difference between projected costs of the AP for 20 versus four/16. The department’s response still does not explain the department’s claim that the price is the same.”