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Good news for Lockheed, not so much for Bell Helicopter

WASHINGTON -- A House subcommittee on Wednesday endorsed continued production of Lockheed Martin's F-22 Raptor but dealt a blow to another North Texas defense project by recommending a $166 million cut in Bell Helicopter's armed reconnaissance helicopter program.

The House air and land forces subcommittee also supports another big-ticket aircraft program -- Lockheed Martin's F-35 joint strike fighter -- and would continue to fund a backup engine for the aircraft that the Pentagon wants to scrap.

The recommendations represent an early step by Congress toward shaping a defense budget for fiscal 2009, which begins in October. The full House Armed Services Committee is expected to make its budget recommendations May 14. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, chairman of the subcommittee, said the panel's recommendations would fully fund most of the major Army and Air Force programs in the $515.4 billion defense budget that President Bush sent to Congress in early February.

The subcommittee seemingly gave a boost to Air Force leaders in their efforts to continue the F-22, which is scheduled to go out of production in 2011. The Pentagon leadership wants to cap the F-22 fleet at 183 fighters, but the Air Force is pushing for at least 381 F-22s, saying it needs at least that many to maintain U.S. air superiority.

Subcommittee members approved $3 billion for 20 F-22s, the final block in a previously approved multiyear contract, and called for an additional $523 million to purchase material for 20 more Raptors in fiscal 2010.

The recommendation would enable thousands of F-22 suppliers to gear up for continued production and was interpreted as a first step toward keeping F-22 assembly lines operating beyond the Pentagon's original timetable. Pentagon officials have acknowledged that the ultimate decision on the Raptor's future will be made by the next administration.

In slicing funding for the armed reconnaissance helicopter that Bell is building for the Army, subcommittee members cited inadequate testing and noted that production costs have doubled.

Bush asked Congress for $358.8 million to buy 28 aircraft in 2009. But the House panel would restrict procurement money until further tests determine that the helicopter is "production ready."

The panel called for $1.6 billion for eight F-35 Lightning II fighters for the Air Force, along with $526 million to continue a backup engine developed by General Electric and Rolls-Royce. The Pentagon wants to stay with only one engine, built by Pratt & Whitney, but has consistently run into resistance in Congress.

An additional eight F-35s for the Navy and Marines, costing $1.86 billion, will be considered by another House panel, as will Bell-Boeing's V-22 Osprey being built primarily for the Marines.

Last week, the Senate Armed Services Committee completed its defense authorization bill markup. The Senate authorized $497 million for the F-22, either for advance procurement or shutting down the production line. The Senate bill would authorize spending $465 million for continued development of a second engine for the F-35. The Senate also urges the Navy to consider buying more F/A-18 Super Hornets, a move that could affect future F-35 orders.

Staff writer Bob Cox contributed to this report.

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