Lockheed Martin rolls out F-22 Raptor
Is $80 million a jet too pricey?In this story:
Web posted at: 7:36 p.m. EDT (2336 GMT)
MARIETTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Amid a shower of lasers and the strains of patriotic music, Lockheed Martin Corp. unveiled the first production model of the F-22 fighter plane Wednesday.
The jet, which uses radar-thwarting stealth technology, has been christened with the name Raptor and was touted during the ceremony as the "newest glory of the United States Air Force."
On hand at the suburban Atlanta plant where it will be built was House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose congressional district is nearby. The plant actually sits within the district of Republican Rep. Bob Barr.
"What you are building, if you build it right, if you dedicate yourself to perfection, will allow the people across the planet to be free for the next half century, will allow America to lead the world," Gingrich said.
F-22 to vie with other new planes
But before the F-22 even gets off the ground, the competition between the Raptor and two other "next generation" war planes has turned into a real dogfight for defense dollars.
The F-22's clean lines and cutting-edge technology make it nearly invisible to radar, but not invulnerable to congressional critics who pan its $80 million-per-plane price tag as unaffordable.
Arkansas Democratic Sen. Dale Bumpers says buying the plane would probably be the "worst procurement mistake" Congress could make in the defense arena. But Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald Fogelman disagrees, saying that clipping the Raptor's wings would "seriously undercut" the Air Force's future preparedness.
The Air Force argues that it needs the pricey jet to make sure it not only wins future battles but enjoys the kind of overwhelming air superiority that allowed the U.S.-led coalition to roll to victory in the Persian Gulf War with minimal casualties.
Gingrich echoed that argument in his remarks at the unveiling.
"We will do everything we can to find the money, not just for procurement but for training, for personnel and for the necessary power projection which is at the heart of America's ability to lead the world," Gingrich said.
Experts agree the F-22 would be the world's premier air-to-air fighter, but it must compete for scarce defense dollars with the Navy's new Super Hornet, a fighter-bomber already hitting the decks of carriers.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jay Johnson says the Navy's new plane is "the right airplane" for his branch of service.
Super Hornet more nimble, costs less
The Super Hornet is a newer, more nimble version of the venerable F-18, with stealth characteristics. And it has a sticker price that is half that of the F-22.
The Navy sees a future in which carriers are stocked with Super Hornets and Joint Strike Fighters -- a next-generation attack plane still on the drawing boards.
The Joint Strike Fighter is supposed to be even cheaper, at $38 million, because one basic design will be modified to suit the different needs of the Air Force, Navy and Marines.
All three programs together -- F-22, Super Hornet and Joint Strike Fighter -- total about $400 billion, a figure that staggers even F-22 supporters such as Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pennsylvania.
"There is no way," Weldon says, "no way we are going to have the money to pay for the programs, so we have to make some tough decisions."
Ultimately, a major Pentagon review of the military strategy, due out next month, is supposed to answer the question of how much better militarily the United States can afford to be.
Correspondent Jamie McIntyre contributed to this report.
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