WASHINGTON, Nov 9 (Reuters) Six US senators today demanded Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England release three government-funded reports that call for additional purchases of Lockheed Martin Corp F-22 ''Raptor'' fighter jets beyond the currently planned level of 183.
The senators said they were concerned by the recent grounding of the Air Force's 700-plus fleet of Boeing Co F-15s, India's recent decision to join Russia's effort to develop a new fighter jet, and the Air Force's statements that it really needs 381 F-22s, although it can only afford 183.
''We continue to be perplexed by the Department of Defense's insistence that only 183 F-22As should be procured,'' the senators wrote in the letter, which was obtained by Reuters.
They asked England to let Congress examine in full three separate reports that reportedly concluded that a far greater number of F-22s was needed, and to make public the reports' conclusions about the minimum number of F-22s needed.
In addition, they asked for a detailed Pentagon briefing before January 15, 2008 on the number of tactical aircraft required to execute US military strategy through 2020.
''We also request that during this briefing, the Department of Defense articulate why Raptor procurement should be limited to 183,'' said the letter, which was signed by six senators, including Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, Sen Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, and Sen James Imhofe, an Oklahoma Republican.
Loren Thompson, defense analyst with the Virginia-based Lexington Institute, last week accused the Pentagon of willfully ignoring expert studies which concluded that it needs around 250 of the next-generation fighter jets, substantially more than the 183 the government plans to order.
''HIDE THE STUDIES'' ''The Pentagon paid for studies that showed more F-22s were needed, but when it got that answer it decided to hide the studies and not share them with Congress,'' Thompson told Reuters. ''Now Congress wants to know why the programme is being cut to 183 planes, less than half the Air Force requirement.'' The Air Force says it needs 381 radar-evading F-22s to equip each of 10 air wings with a squadron of 24 fighters, plus some for testing, attrition and training.
The senators raised concerns about Russian work on a radar-evading next-generation fighter jet known as the Sukhoi T-50, citing media reports that it was being developed to directly confront the F-22.
India's participation in the project was ''especially disconcerting,'' the letter said, given how well Indian Air Force fights performed during recent joint military exercises with US forces, and ''the propensity of of the Russian Government to sell advanced weapons to our potential adversaries.'' It also cited media reports that China reportedly was also working on a similar twin-engine stealthy fighter jet.
The Air Force initially planned to buy 750 F-22s when the program first began in the 1980s, but that number has been whittled lower due to rising costs, budget pressures and competition from other weapons programs.
Sources familiar with the studies in question have said they cite a need for at least 40 additional F-22s, including one prepared by Virginia-based consulting group Whitney, Bradley&Brown, and first reported by Reuters in July 2006.
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