June 21, 2009 (by Bjørnar Bolsøy) - The prospect of an export version of the F-22 Raptor fighter moved a step closer last week as House lawmakers discussed the possibility of selling the advanced fighter overseas.
A USAF F-22A from the 90th FS flies over Guam for a training mission on April 15th, 2009.
Such a move could help drive down the cost and also keep the door open for more F-22 production for the U.S. Air Force in the future.
Current U.S. law prevents Lockheed Martin from selling the radar evading F-22 outside of the United States, but countries such as Israel
and Japan have long expressed interest in an export version of the fighter. Recent North Korean missile launches and a looming closure of the F-22 production line might help to strengthen the case and reverse the export ban.
"The foreign sales debate has been out there for awhile . . . and that offers some very interesting possibilities for perhaps bringing down the costs per airplane if this foreign sales thing can be
worked out," said Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) during a June 18 meeting with reporters in Washington.
Abercrombie maintained that an F-22 export version would have significantly fewer capabilities than the U.S. version and this could weaken the business case for an export jet, especially given the global economic crisis.
However the concept is supported by the U.S Air force, which is reported to have worked on the issue of a possible export model for the past few months. On June 9 Lt. Gen. Mark Shackelford, military deputy in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, told the Senate Armed Services air and land forces subcommittee that the Air Force would take the necessary steps to ensure that an export model did not compromise U.S. military secrets.
This follows a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing a few days earlier where Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) asked the Air Force’s top two leaders, Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz and Secretary Michael Donley, what it would take to sell the stealth fighter abroad. According to Inouye Japanese officials had asked him about the possibility of creating an F-22 export version.
Japan, which has previously expressed interest in creating two squadrons of F-22s, has said it would pay the estimated $1 billion required to develop the export model. Two squadrons would bring the numbers up to between 40 and 60 jets and the U.S. Air Force estimates a cost of up to $250 million per jet, significantly higher than the $150 million to $170 million currently paid by the Air Force.
Still, while there is growing support for lifting the export ban considerable obstacles remain before the concept could materialize. But if approved by the lawmakers, production could begin in four to five years, with deliveries in seven to nine years.
In May Defence Secretary Robert Gates capped the F-22 program at 187 jets, citing shifting priorities and a focus on the more flexible F-35 fighter, but last week Congress narrowly voted in favor of an extra $369 million in the fiscal year 2010 defense authorization bill buying parts for 12 additional F-22 jets.
The full funding of $2.8 billion, giving a price of $233 million apiece, is still "a work in progress", according to Abercrombie, but if approved by the full House and Senate this would extend the
production line to 2013 or 2014.
Just hours before the House Armed Services Committee rescued future F-22s, the full House approved spending $600 million to buy four of the stealth fighters with money in the $106 billion "emergency supplemental" bill used to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.