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House Panel Doubts Air Force Plan

Contractors vie to produce a $41 million plane that challenges impressive new Soviet models. ADVANCED TECHNOLOGY FIGHTER

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 12, 1989



WASHINGTON

THOUGH its outline is still classified, the new jet may look like a giant black dart. Fast enough to cruise at the speed of sound, able to leap through radar waves without being detected, the Advanced Technology Fighter (ATF) sounds like the United States wonder plane of the 21st century. Now under development by the Air Force, the ATF is intended to replace the F-15 and be superior to next-generation Soviet counterparts. Air Force goals call for the new plane to use advanced materials and electronic technology, all at affordable cost and with twice the reliability of today's fighters.

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``We have some very challenging performance requirements,'' says Lt. Gen. Mike Loh, commander of the Air Force Aeronautical Systems Division.

Too challenging, say some critics. While B-2 Stealth bomber test flights and price tags made headlines this summer, the House Appropriations Committee quietly turned its sights on the ATF instead, eliminating all funds for the plane from the Pentagon's fiscal 1990 budget.

When the dust settles this fall Congress will likely restore ATF money. The Senate so far has not looked so skeptically at the program. House Committee members say they just wanted to send the Air Force a message: Watch out, or this plane could become as controversial as the B-2.

The appropriations panel has ``deep concerns over the acquisition strategy, costs, and technical risks associated with the current ATF program,'' says a report accompanying its 1990 bill.

Few members of Congress dispute the need for a new air-superiority fighter. The F-15 represents early 1970s technology, while the newest Soviet models have impressed Western analysts in a series of unprecedented air-show flights. In its first appearance outside the Soviet Union at this year's Paris Air Show, the Soviet SU-27 interceptor demonstrated a maneuver called ``Pougachev's Cobra'' in which it pitched up and slid through the air tail-first. Western fighters can't do that, although the usefulness of the move in combat is in dispute.

The ATF program was launched in late 1981, with a target of fielding a new fighter in the mid-1990s. Air Force plans call for purchasing some 750 ATFs, at a total estimated cost of $64.3 billion. If the Navy buys a beefed-up version of the ATF to replace the F-14, as it is now committed to do, total ATF program costs are likely to surpass the $70 billion B-2 price tag.

Two teams of contractors are competing for this rich procurement prize. Lockheed, teamed with General Dynamics and Boeing, is building an ATF design dubbed YF-22A; Northrop, teamed with McDonnell Douglas, is building the YF-23A. Prototypes will fly early next year, with a winner scheduled to be picked sometime in 1991.

The contractor teams are facing tough requirements. The Air Force has set ATF goals of a 50,000-pound weight and a flyaway cost of $41 million in 1990 dollars. The winning design must be more maneuverable than an F-15, much less detectable on radar, and able to take off on much shorter runways.