F-22 Raptors fly above Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. The Associated Press
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Update: Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s spokesman announced May 15 that Panetta has ordered all F-22 flights to be restrained within a “proximate distance” of an airfield in case pilots begin to feel sick from the ongoing oxygen problems. He also ordered that plans to install a backup oxygen system in the planes be accelerated. His decision appears to rule out any use of the costly planes in combat situations in the near future.

When officials told reporters a few weeks ago that they had deployed F-22 fighter jets in the Middle East for the first time, it was downplayed as “a very normal deployment.” But when it comes to the F-22, there’s very little “normal” about it.

Gen. Mike Hostage, commander of Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va, told reporters Monday that some pilots have asked that they be reassigned rather than be forced to fly the jet. And while he described the concerned group as “very small,” Hostage made a point of telling reporters he would be flying the plane himself in the future to “check out” his pilot’s concerns and try to bolster their in-flight courage.

“I’m asking these guys to assume some risks that’s over and above what everybody else is assuming, and I don’t feel like it’s right that I ask them to do it and I’m not willing to do it myself,” said Hostage. (A spokesman confirmed the General would begin his training at the end of the month.)

His disclosure appeared to anticipate the appearance on Sunday of two pilots on the CBS television network “60 Minutes” program, who bluntly said they are not comfortable flying the jet. Maj. Jeremy Gordon and Capt. Josh Wilson, who said they were speaking as military whistleblowers, both described experiencing hypoxia, the persistent in-flight oxygen shortage that has flummoxed the Air Force and the plane’s builders.

They said the heightened risk of an accident had caused them to take out extra life insurance. The Air Force, they said, urged them to keep flying so it could learn more about the problem. “We have been told we are data collectors,” Wilson said, according to a partial transcript released by CBS.

Based on the jet’s history, the pilots’ reaction isn’t surprising. The F-22’s record is one of breakdowns and planning bad enough to require another decade of repairs, according to the government’s watchdog. Meanwhile, the price tag for one of the most expensive Air Force projects in history will keep going up.

The plane officially rolled off the assembly line in 2003 and supposed to be the premiere jet for the U.S. military, a stealth-enabled, hyper-maneuverable air craft capable of dominating the skies at supersonic speeds.

Six years later, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asked that production be halted and Congress agreed to pull $1.75 billion in funding for the jet. Why the turnaround? Costs had nearly tripled, reaching $412 million a plane, according to a 2011 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. Production lagged well behind schedule, and the wars in Iraq an Afghanistan required a different type of plane, capable mostly of bombing rather than airborne combat.

The plane has also experienced multiple breakdowns and technical flaws: Since 2005, it had suffered at least 6 major accidents costing over $1 million each, according to Air Force statistics. On its first international deployment, a squad of F-22s lost all computer systems while in flight and had to be brought back to base by their mid-air tankers, according to a retired Air Force general.

In 2010, the entire fleet was grounded due to rusted ejection-seat rods; a year later, the F-22 was grounded for four months after pilots complained that oxygen flow problems were leading to dizziness and, in some cases, blackouts — a problem that may have led to the crashing death of a pilot in Alaska. The loss of oxygen has been an ongoing issue, with 11 cases of “hypoxia” reported since September. Pilots are now required to fly with monitors on their finger to alert them if their oxygen drops to unsafe levels so they can return to base.

The military has yet to use the fighters in combat situations, even though they have officially been cleared for active duty since 2005.

With the last of the 179 F-22s ordered by the military slated to be delivered this week, the GAO says in a new report that “the estimated cost of the overall modernization program has doubled, and the schedule has slipped by 7 years.”

The Air Force now expects to spend a total of $11.7 billion (including money already spent) for four “increments,” or waves of upgrades, that will be completed in 2023 — or about $65 million per plane.

The first increment adding new ground attack capability has already been installed into the planes. Some planes have already received the second increment with enhanced radar and another improvement of air-to-ground strike capability. The third upgrade will improve computer systems and the final upgrade, expected to improve “geolocation, electronic protection, and Intra Flight Data Link capabilities and integrate AIM-9X and AIM-120D missiles,” will begin to show up in 2017. If everything is delivered on time — no sure thing — the F-22 fleet will finally be upgraded two decades after the first production model was finished.

Why will the upgrade process take so long? Unlike the “legacy programs” examined in the report — planes like the F-15, F-16 and F/A-18 — the F-22 was never conceptualized as a plane that would need major modifications, making the upgrades a steeper challenge. The legacy programs anticipated the need for upgrades down the line, with budgets and planning tailored accordingly. In contract, the F-22 strategy was to deliver a plane with top-line technology that would not need major medications or improvements, a decision that in 2003 GAO warned “hamstrung” the program with “significant risk and onerous technological challenges.”

Additionally, the older planes were much simpler platforms, so modifications such as new weapons could simply be bolted on. With the F-22, designers need to consider software, computing power and the stealth equipment when gearing up for modifications.

Which brings up the final kicker in the report: By the time these upgrades are fully implemented across the F-22 fleet, a “large number” of the planes will have already logged 1,500 hours of flight time out of a lifetime of 8,000 hours. In other words, almost 20 percent of the fleet’s lifetime will pass by the time the planes are fully upgraded and operational.

The report was done at the request of Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI). His office declined to comment.

According to GAO, DOD had no formal comments they wished to be included in the report, but did provide technical comments that were imported into the report. A call to Lockheed Martin, the primary contractor on the F-22, was not immediately returned.

R. Jeffrey Smith, the managing editor for national security, contributed to this article.

Correction (May 2, 2012, 5:58 PM): The origional posting listed the total cost of the modernization program as $9.7 billion, instead of $11.7 billion. This has been updated.

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