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More Battles Ahead Over Defense Budget Cuts

Obama administration won its drive to kill expensive F-22 jet fighter program, but more skirmishes with job-rich defense contractors and their allies in Congress are just over the horizon.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Obama administration has chalked up a quick victory in its drive to kill an expensive jet fighter better suited for the Cold War than Afghanistan, but more skirmishes with job-rich defense contractors and their allies in Congress are just over the horizon.

With billions of dollars and thousands of high-paying jobs at stake, a top Pentagon contractor and its allies in Congress are battling to maintain production on another military aircraft targeted by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The Boeing Co. is optimistic of winning billions of dollars for giant C-17 transport planes and F-18 fighter jets not requested by Gates, preserving jobs at assembly plants in California and Missouri. Boeing is pressing to add the planes to President Barack Obama's $83.4 billion request to fund U.S. military and diplomatic efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Gates quietly won the first skirmish with another contractor when Lockheed Martin Corp. said Tuesday it is accepting Gates' decision to stop production of over-budget F-22 fighter planes.

The Pentagon chief staked his credibility on moving away from some big equipment purchases for conventional wars and instead gearing the Defense Department's buying plans to the smaller, lower-tech battlefields the military is encountering in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That means uprooting programs that have been carefully seeded across the country to maximize political support -- and feed the parochialism that drives many of Congress' actions on buying weapons and equipment for the military.

For example, final assembly of the F-22 fight jet occurs at Lockheed Martin's plant in Marietta, Ga., but it relies on parts contributed by some 1,000 suppliers spread across 44 states.

Obama wants the war funding bill on his desk by Memorial Day. But first it must wend its way through Congress, where old-guard lawmakers like Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., are poised to go to bat for Boeing. They are likely to add about $4 billion for 15 of the giant C-17 cargo planes that have been ferrying heavy equipment and troops since 1991. Gates is recommending killing the program after currently funded planes have been built.

"We have enough C-17s," he said earlier this month.

Boeing has launched a newspaper advertising campaign targeting lawmakers touting the C-17: "Model Program: On Cost, On Schedule," reads the ad.

"We need strategic lift," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "And incidentally, there are a lot of jobs, obviously, connected for my state, which now has over an 11 percent unemployment rate."

About 5,000 people work at the plant in Long Beach, Calif., with 25,000 more employed by suppliers spread across 43 states.

Last year's war funding bill contained 15 C-17s, and supporters are confident this 15 more this year is already a done deal.

Boeing is expanding its focus to seeking additional F/A-18 Super Hornets for the Navy, assembled in St. Louis at a cost of about $60 million each. It touts the F-18 as a less costly alternative to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter favored by Gates and built by rival Lockheed -- and a timely solution to a current shortfall in tactical fighters.

Gates appears, however, to have prevailed in a defining battle over the F-22. The fighter was designed in the 1980s to guarantee air dominance over enemies like the Soviet Union and China but has attracted enormous criticism for its expense and because it it is not suited to the combat situations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bringing F-22 production to a halt is central to Gates' effort to refocus the military away from super-expensive weapons that aren't suited to the conflicts the nation is likely to face in the future.

The administration had seemed to invite a battle over the F-22 by asking for four of the planes in Obama's recent war request, giving F-22 backers an opening to press for additional planes.

But their efforts took a salvo earlier this month when the two top Air Force officials wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post in which they came into line with Gates, agreeing to drop a bid for 60 additional planes.

Lockheed is instead focused on ramping up production of F-35s at the Marietta plant, along with production of two cargo planes.

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