US Air Force awards $350 million in F-22 contracts

US Air Force awards $350 million in F-22 contracts

Lockheed Martin Corp. has been awarded two U.S. defense contracts totaling $304 million to extend through March the company's advance procurement of material for any future initial production of the F-22 fighter jet, the Air Force said on Monday.

The award does not represent a decision by the Pentagon for the firm to begin initial low-rate production of 10 of the next-generation F-22 stealth jets, designed to succeed the F-15 fighter, the Air Force said.

The service also said United Technologies Corp. had been awarded $46 million to extend until March its advance procurement of material for any order to begin initial production of 20 engines for the F-22.

"These are 'bridge' contracts so that the companies can keep procuring equipment for any decision on initial production," Air Force Lt. Col. Alvina Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the F-22 program at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio told Reuters.

Recent bad weather and a cautionary internal Pentagon report on the F-22 fighter delayed a decision planned last week on production of the first 10 of the jets until at least later this month.

But some defense officials told Reuters the temporary problems could delay a production decision on the F-22 "Raptor" for months after President-elect George W. Bush takes office on Jan. 20.

The Bush administration has promised a top-to-bottom review of all Pentagon weapons programs, including Air Force plans to eventually buy 339 F-22s for more than $60 billion.

Defense officials said privately they doubted the program would be killed despite suggestions the new administration might skip a generation of some high-tech weapons and vault ahead to more sophisticated hardware.

But the officials said a recent cautionary letter from the Pentagon's director of operational test and evaluation, Philip Coyle, would be given strong consideration in any decision to produce the 10 initial planes. Bad winter weather has also hampered key Air Force testing of the jet.

Coyle told outgoing Defense Department acquisition chief Jacques Gansler on Dec. 20 there would be "unacceptable risk' in a quick production decision because of questions about the F-22's sophisticated avionics system and the need for further airframe testing.

Published reports have also said the fighter jet is already several billion dollars over planned costs, although Lockheed Martin has voiced confidence overruns could be made up once regular production begins.

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