The Pentagon bills it as the "cornerstone" of the US jet fighter fleet in the next century. Stealthy in design and gazelle-quick in the air, the F-22 "raptor" is a marvel of modern military engineering.
But today in the US House of Representatives, the F-22 may become known for something else: a tough new approach to the way Congress hands the Pentagon its money.
For the first time in decades, lawmakers are considering killing a major weapons system that is about to reach the assembly line.
While the $70-billion F-22 program could still survive, the very talk of cutting it off this late in development - particularly among key House Republicans - underscores shifting attitudes and priorities about the US military on Capitol Hill.
"We have very tough choices, and if you aren't willing to face those, you ought to have another job," says Rep. Jerry Lewis (R) of California, chairman of a House defense subcommittee that last week - in a move that shocked the Pentagon and defense contractors - cut funding for the F-22.
The reluctance among many in the House about the raptor program doesn't mean lawmakers, especially Republicans, are suddenly going soft on defense.
Instead, critics of the program on both sides of the aisle argue that with two other other state-of-the-art jet fighters also under development, the US doesn't need the F-22 - particularly at an estimated $200 million a plane.
At the same time, some lawmakers say the US would be better off putting the money into military pay, spare parts, and other pressing needs. As Representative Lewis puts it: "I want our tactical aircraft to be the best. But do we need three lines of aircraft?"
Under development for 16 years, the F-22 is considered the most expensive fighter aircraft ever built in the US. The Pentagon wants $3 billion to keep the project going as part of an overall $266 billion defense-budget bill the House is scheduled to take up today. Some $2 billion of that would go to buy half a dozen of the costly fighters.
Mr. Lewis's subcommittee stripped money for production of the first half dozen F-22s, but still included $1.2 billion for research and development. That, in effect, would shut down the production line - and in the eyes of some analysts presages a tougher line in Congress about individual weapons systems.
"This may be the beginning of a time when we have a more sensible approach on air power," says John Pike, a defense analyst at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.
The Air Force and Lockheed Martin Corp., builder of the plane, have been lobbying House members that the F-22 is needed. They argue the fighter will help the United States maintain air superiority and provide cover for the other two new aircraft under development - the Joint Strike Fighter and the F-18E/F - which are also scheduled to come on line soon.
"It is very costly to go ahead with all three, and the most effective approach would be to cancel one of the programs," says Steven Kosiak, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. "Whether the F-22 is the right one to cancel, though, is not clear."
Air Force generals warn that new fighters in other countries - the Russian Su-35, for example, and the Eurofighter 2000, as well as new missile systems - will put the US fleet at a tactical disadvantage. The F-22 would serve dual roles, functioning as an air-to-air combat plane and as a bomber. "We are very concerned that without the F-22, we will mortgage the future of our air dominance capability, while we fund the systems that we currently have," says Air Force Lt. Gen. Greg Martin.
"We are not buying this airplane to fight a war in the year 2000," adds Maj. Gen. Bruce Carlson. "We are buying to fight and win America's wars in 2010 and 2030 or beyond."
Too many fighters
But critics say that, with the Soviet threat gone, funding priorities belong with high-tech precision-guided munitions, long-range bombers, and unmanned surveillance and attack aircraft.
"The F-22 was designed to deal with the Soviet air force and, when it went away, that requirement went away," says Mr. Pike.
While earmarking $1.2 billion for research and development would at least keep the F-22 program going, analysts say the reduction in funding would make it hard to restart production later.
"It's the last chance we have [to cancel the program] before they go into production," says a Capitol Hill source.
Cohen fights for F-22
Acknowledging that reality, Defense Secretary William Cohen has joined those fighting to save the program.
"This decision, if enacted, would for all practical purposes kill the F-22 program," he recently wrote in a letter to Lewis. "Canceling the F-22 means we cannot guarantee air superiority in future conflicts."
Lewis would use the money to fund eight new F-15s, nearly half a dozen F-16s, and eight KC 130 tankers. There's also some $500 million set aside for pilot-retention programs.
The Air Force this year is projected to fall far short of its recruitment goals, and, by fiscal 2000, expects to have 1,100 openings for pilots.
But the battle over the F-22 is far from over. The Senate has already fully funded the F-22 project. If Lewis prevails on the House floor - and he has the support of Speaker Dennis Hastert as well as minority leader Richard Gephardt - the defense bill will have to be reconciled with the Senate version.
"If it makes it to conference, there is plenty of time for bargaining to go on," says Bert Cooper, a defense analyst at the Congressional Research Service. "The fat lady hasn't sung yet. I caution people to wait and see and enjoy the unusualness of it."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society