The US Air Force has been authorised to spend up to $50 million up to the end of January to keep the earliest pieces of the Lockheed Martin F-22 supply chain in production.
The decision by John Young, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, commits the Pentagon to buy parts for four additional F-22s, raising the USAF's overall order to 187 aircraft, including two losses.
The commitment marks the first order for additional F-22s since then-secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld capped the USAF's order at 183 in 2005. But it does not settle the question of the F-22 production line's long-term future, with the last example currently due to be delivered in early 2011.
Young's decision leaves president-elect Barack Obama's administration to make the decision whether to place a full-rate production order for a total of 20 aircraft in fiscal year 2010. Obama's government will face an immediate decision after taking office on 21 January about whether to keep feeding the F-22 supply chain beyond the additional four aircraft.
Congress has allocated up to $500 million of advanced procurement funds for the F-22 next year, enough to pay for long-lead parts to assemble 20 fighters in FY2010. The allocation was made contingent on the F-22's recertification by the next government before 1 March 2009.
Lockheed has warned that a failure to release the full funds before 15 March would create gaps in its supply chain, increasing costs if a decision is made to restart production at a later date.
Obama and his defence advisors have so far made no concrete statements about the F-22's future, but in one 2007 campaign stop, he cited the Bell Boeing V-22 tiltrotor and F-22 as examples of defence acquisition programmes that do not live up to expectations.
"The Osprey is an example of something where it's not clear that it's working the way - in fact, it's fairly clear that it hasn't performed the way it was supposed to," Obama said. "The F-22 is another example."
The USAF has already released solicitations to acquire four more F-22s and eight Pratt & Whitney F119 engines. The acquisition notice includes Lot 10 options to buy another 16 aircraft and 32 engines.
Extending F-22 production could come at a cost to the USAF's current plan to accelerate production of Lockheed's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, raising the peak annual order from 48 to 110 aircraft after 2012.