WASHINGTON - The F-117A Nighthawk, the stealth fighter that launched Operation Iraqi Freedom, is "long in the tooth" and among the Southern California defense programs being put out to pasture, Pentagon officials said Monday as they unveiled a record $493.3 billion budget that eliminates some of the region's most prominent aircraft.
In addition to retiring the Nighthawk, the budget calls for retiring the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, both modified by Lockheed Martin workers in Palmdale, while making room for the unmanned Global Hawk reconnaissance aircraft. That aircraft, a Northrop Grumman program, also is assembled in Palmdale.
"This is a function of modernization on the Air Force's part," Vice Adm. Evan Chanik, the Joint Staff's director of force structure, said Monday of the cuts. "It allows them to take older aircraft that are getting long in the tooth, that are costing more to maintain, more to fly (and) allows them to modernize the force."
Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Dianne Knippel said the company is "disappointed" with the Pentagon's decision on the Nighthawk and U-2s, but noted that with the president's annual proposed budget, "submission is always the first step."
New Mexico Sens. Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman, who represent Holloman Air Force Base from where the F-117As are deployed, vowed to review the Air Force plans to ensure the aircraft is not being retired prematurely. The proposed plan calls for retiring 10 aircraft, with the remainder to be put out of service in 2008.
While the Nighthawk may be what some defense experts call "aging iron," Dan Goure, a senior analyst for the Lexington Institute defense think tank in Washington, D.C.,
questioned the wisdom of retiring it with only a handful of F-22s and no F-35 joint strike fighters online yet to replace them.
"It's pretty damn risky," Goure said. Likewise for the U-2, he said, "The question is: Do we really have anything at present to replace it?"
The 2007 budget also delivered a long-anticipated blow to Long Beach, officially revealing that the Pentagon will not request any more Boeing Co. C-17 military cargo transports once the current order for 180 planes is fulfilled in 2008.
While the plan calls for storing production equipment to keep open the possibility of procuring more C-17s in the future, officials noted that stopping and reopening the line would double the price of the aircraft, making it an unlikely scenario.
Without the intervention of Congress, the U.S. faces the closure of the last assembly line capable of building large transport planes, said David Sommers, spokesman for Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe. The Long Beach plant employs 6,500.
"That's the last one. That's it," Sommers said.