The US Senate today voted to end production of Lockheed Martin F-22s after 2011, overturning a challenge to the Obama Administration's defence budget priorities with a surprising 18-vote majority.
The Senate voted 58-40 to strip $1.75 billion for buying seven more F-22s beyond the 187 funded in the current programme of record. The money had been added in June by the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee.
The issue attracted a strong response from reform-minded senators, led by Democrat Carl Levin and Republican John McCain, as well as a rare veto threat by President Barack Obama.
Gates personally lobbied senators over the last two weeks and made several statements calling for halting further production of the F-22. In Gates's view, the 187 currently in the fleet satisfied the US Air Force's requirements, with 2,400 Lockheed F-35s and hundreds of unmanned aircraft also planned to be purchased.
The F-22's supporters, however, claimed that closing the F-22 production line would needlessly sacrifice thousands of jobs and put the USAF's air superiority mission at risk.
The House of Representatives has already split with the Obama Administration on the F-22. The House has inserted about $360 million in the Fiscal 2010 budget to buy long-lead parts to build 12 more F-22s. At least $2 billion more is required next year to complete the deal.
The Senate vote sets up a confrontation with House leaders about their differences on continuing F-22 production. A single-version of the budget must be submitted to President Obama before it can be signed into law.
Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin chief financial officer Bruce Tanner, speaking today to financial analysts, delivered a pessimistic forecast about the F-22's export chances to Japan or any other foreign buyer.
"I'm not particularly positive on the ability for us to make [an F-22 export deal] happen in the next few years," Tanner says.