A debut flying demonstration at one of the world's major air shows can be a sort of coronation, a rite of passage for the relatively few aircraft concepts that survive the process of development and flight test and enter production.
When the Lockheed Martin F-22 makes its belated debut in the public display at this year's Farnborough air show, the event will be testament to the stealth fighter programme's perseverance over sometimes formidable odds in a decades-long development phase.
But the F-22's big moment comes amid yet another crisis over the programme's funding. Even as the aircraft is celebrated on its most public stage, Lockheed must hope the event will not be followed by the curtain falling on production as soon as the end of October.
In the US Congress, the laborious process of producing next year's defence budget is already past the halfway point, yet the outlook for the F-22 remains more unclear than at any time since the depths of the development challenges that threatened its survival repeatedly in the late 1990s.
The current stalemate was set in motion by a programme restructuring in 2005 orchestrated by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. With little warning, Rumsfeld unveiled a new plan that year to cut off all funding for the F-22 after fiscal year 2008, reducing the USAF's projected buy from up to 277 aircraft to 183 aircraft - enough to outfit seven squadrons. The USAF's approved requirement for F-22s is still 381 aircraft, enough for 10 squadrons, but it has not been funded at that level since 2001.
Bridge a Gap
In 2006, the USAF succeeded in partly rolling back part of Rumsfeld's changes. Explaining its need to keep a fifth-generation fighter in continuous full-rate production, the USAF stretched out the order for F-22s to bridge a gap created by an 18-month delay for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
A three-year procurement deal for a total of 60 aircraft slowed production to 20 F-22s a year, but kept the production line intact until 2010. That victory not only kept the production line moving two more years, it created the opportunity for the F-22's fate to be decided by a new administration.
Under the current White House regime, Rumsfeld's successor, Bob Gates, brought many changes to the US Department of Defense when he arrived in late 2006, but not for the F-22 programme.
© Lockheed Martin
Agreeing with Rumsfeld's decision to cap the programme at 183 aircraft, Gates decided not to request funds to extend production beyond the end of next year, overruling the objections of a chastened US Air Force.
Gates thinks the USAF has invested enough money in its premier air superiority fighter, and it is time to reinvest in technologies most relevant to current national security threats.
"The reality is, we are fighting two wars - in Iraq and Afghanistan - and the F-22 has not performed a single mission in either theatre," Gates told a congressional committee in March. "So it is principally for use against a near peer in a conflict, and I think we all know who that is. And looking at what I regard as the level of risk of conflict with one of those near peers over the next four or five years until the Joint Strike Fighter comes along, I think something along the lines of 183 F-22s is a reasonable buy."
Gates Could Stay
Gates also silenced a senior USAF commander who told reporters in March that funding for the F-22 programme would be restored when Gates was no longer in power. The Bush administration leaves office in January, although speculation continues that Gates could be retained by either party in the next administration in his current role.
Gates' staunch refusal to fund long-lead items to continue production into FY2010 passes the decision for the F-22's fate to Congress. Already, congressional committees with a role in the budgeting process have taken a variety of positions, resulting in no clear view about the aircraft's chances of survival.
The House Armed Services Committee has voted to restore funding in FY2009 to buy enough long-lead items to build a further 20 F-22s the following year. The long-lead funding in question amounts to $523 million. That is nearly the same amount Gates' staff took away from the F-22 and put into the Boeing F-15 sustainment account.
The status of the funds shifted to the F-15 account is no longer publicly understood. The money was allocated to repair a manufacturing defect detected after an F-15C crashed in November 2007.
"Since that time, the air force has determined that these additional funds are not necessary for completing the repairs required to correct F-15 structural problems and return them to flying status," the HASC wrote.
It is not clear whether that money could still be available to move back into the F-22 account. The HASC report does not mention that possibility.
Restoring the F-22's funding for long-lead procurement in FY2009 would save the production line and allow the supply chain to continue for at least another year, and would spare the USAF the drama of cutting funds for another programme to pay for more F-22s in the Pentagon's internal budgeting process.
"On the F-22, a lot of people don't realise we've got a third of that programme," Boeing chief executive Jim McNerney told investors in May. "It's about $1 billion a year and we were encouraged in the 2009 HASC language that they'd put in money for long lead for another 20 F-22s. I think they really decided to defer the decision on how many F-22s to be built until the next administration."
One more year of production would increase the USAF's total order from 183 to 203. But the Senate Armed Services Committee prefers to leave the funding decision to the next administration, passing a bill that would permit the next US president to shut down the production line or pay for long-lead items. The SASC bill provides $497 million for either purpose.
"The next president of the USA would have to decide which alternative would be in the best interests of the nation and submit a certification of that decision to the congressional defence committees before any of these funds could be spent," says the committee's report on the bill.
This approach has earned Gates's endorsement. Although earlier this year he called for a complete halt to F-22 production, he has recently softened his stance to embrace the Senate panel's compromise.
Meanwhile, appropriators in the House and Senate are squabbling about whether to allocate the same amount of funding as part of a supplemental spending bill intended to pay for the cost of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
Leaving the decision to the next administration will present a huge decision very soon after the election. The next president will not be sworn in until late January, and the following year's budget request is traditionally submitted by early February.
From the industry's point of view, keeping the programme's future on hold could prove costly if a decision is not made before 31 October. That is the date when Lockheed must turn off the earliest components of the supply chain in the absence of continued funding. Turning those elements back on later could cost up to $1 billion if no decision is made for another year, say Boeing officials.