By Jim Wolf WASHINGTON, June 18 (Reuters) - A top Air Force general, swerving from the Pentagon leadership, said ending production of Lockheed Martin Corp (NYSE: LMT - news) 's F-22 Raptor fighter jet, as proposed by President Barack Obama, would put current U.S. military strategy at high risk.
'In my opinion, a fleet of 187 F-22s puts execution of our current national military strategy at high risk in the near to mid-term,' Gen. John Corley, head of the Air Combat Command, wrote in a June 9 letter to a senator.
'To my knowledge, there are no studies that demonstrate 187 F-22s are adequate to support our national military strategy,' he said in the letter to Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Republican from Georgia, where the plane undergoes final assembly.
An analysis by the Air Combat Command, which supplies warplanes to regional U.S. warfighting commands, 'done in concert with Headquarters Air Force, shows a moderate risk can be obtained with an F-22 fleet of approximately 250 aircraft,' added Corley, who has announced plans to retire.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has urged Congress to end purchases of the radar-evading F-22, the top U.S. fighter, on the ground that there was no military requirement for more. With production capped at 187, the last would roll off the line in late 2011 or early 2012.
The House of Representatives' Armed Services Committee voted 31 to 30 early Wednesday to authorize purchase of 12 more F-22s with a down payment of $369 million in fiscal 2010, which starts Oct. 1. The provision kicked off a battle likely to last well into the fall as the matter comes to votes elsewhere in the House and Senate.
Gates, at a Pentagon briefing Thursday, said he had a 'big problem' with the House panel's action.
'Frankly, to be blunt about it, the notion that not buying 60 more F-22s imperils the national security of the United States I find completely nonsense,' he said.
On April 13, the Air Force's top civilian and top officer, citing tight budget constraints, formally endorsed Gates' proposal to wrap up F-22 production.
'This is the time to make the transition from F-22 to F-35 production,' Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and General Norton Schwartz, the chief of staff, wrote in a Washington Post (NYSE: WPO - news) guest column at the time.
The Air Force had no immediate comment on its leaders' reaction to Corley, a former vice chief of staff and senior acquisition official.
Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Dunn, president of the Air Force Association, a support group, said Corley's assessment should serve as a 'wake-up call' to members of Congress who are weighing what to do about the F-22.
In recent years, the Air Force's push to buy as many as 381 F-22s has been a major irritant in the Pentagon. A year ago, Gates forced the resignations of then-Secretary Michael Wynne and General Michael Moseley, then the chief of staff, amid strains over their drive to buy more for potential major conflicts.
Rep. Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, a senior Democrat on the House Armed Services panel, said Thursday he expected Congress to fund at least 20 F-22s in the fiscal 2010 defense budget now under review.
Boeing Co (NYSE: BA - news) is a key F-22 subcontractor. Abercrombie heads the subcommittee that oversees land and air programs.
He predicted bipartisan support for extending the production line even though he himself had voted against funding additional F-22s on Wednesday pending identification of where the money would come from to pay for them.
'This is a work in progress,' he said, adding that the Pentagon had erred in riding 'roughshod' over what he called a congressional consensus last year on buying 20 more to keep the line open while carefully studying air power and national security strategy.
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