The Air Force’s newest air superiority fighter under development, the F-22 Raptor, has passed an important combat avionics test, but officials within the program say the decision to begin limited production will not be immediately forthcoming.

Last Friday, test aircraft No. 4005 flew its successful combat avionics test out of an airbase in Marietta, Ga. The flight was the first for the F-22 test aircraft containing the advanced new combat “Block 3.0” software components.

Air Force officials say the software will allow Raptor pilots to target and engage multiple targets with air-to-air missiles and other munitions — a capability not inherent in current Air Force fighters.

However, because key flight tests have been delayed by weather and other factors, the decision to proceed with a limited production run of 10 F-22s has yet to be made by the Pentagon’s Defense Acquisition Board.

Last week, WorldNetDaily reported that the Pentagon decided to postpone a meeting of the board because congressionally required flight tests had yet to be completed.

Prior to the Pentagon’s decision, a government watchdog group — The Project on Government Oversight — issued a statement criticizing what it said was the Defense Department’s intention to go ahead with limited production despite not having fully tested the new fighter.

It was unclear whether POGO’s statement — which contained details about a number of specific tests that the Raptor had yet to undergo — had any bearing in the Pentagon’s decision to delay the plane’s initial production run.

In any event, Lt. Col. Art Haubold, an Air Force spokesman for the F-22 program, disputed much of the POGO assessment report, noting that the Raptor would undergo more testing than the F-15, F-16 and the F/A-18 fighter planes did during development.

The Defense Department’s decision to delay production of the first Raptor aircraft has left program analysts concerned that the entire program may be in some danger of being scaled back considerably or — in the extreme — eliminated altogether.

According to Defense Systems Daily, a military industry magazine, “the delay in the DAB meeting has increased the chances of the F-22 program being caught in the review of all aircraft programs, promised by the incoming Bush administration.”

In December, the magazine reported that Phil Coyle, the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation, “said in a letter to defense undersecretary for acquisition and technology Jacques Gansler, that the F-22 should not be given the [limited production run] go-ahead until it had carried unspecified additional tests to avoid unacceptable risk.”

Gansler left his Pentagon post on Friday, meaning that a DAB decision to go ahead with Raptor production is even more unlikely, especially so close to the inauguration of a new administration Jan. 20.

Intially, the DAB was scheduled to meet Jan. 3 to decide whether to proceed with the production. Gansler would have chaired that meeting, had it not been canceled.

Haubold said the Air Force is especially interested in pursuing the F-22 program in order to position the service to remain in control of the skies in the foreseeable future.

Currently, other major powers are developing new fighter aircraft, but none, defense analysts say, can compare to the F-22’s targeting and defensive capabilities.

Besides being able to engage multiple targets and aircraft at once, the Block 3.0 software also gives Raptor pilots automatic abilities to launch countermeasures, in case their aircraft is targeted by missiles or incoming ground fire.

“Block 3.0 is the software that provides and controls the ‘first look, first shot, first kill’ warfighting capability of the F-22 Raptor,” said Tom McDermott, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics’ F-22 avionics product manager, according to Defense Systems Daily. “Block 3.0 provides the multi-sensor fusion Raptor pilots will need to accurately acquire, track, identify and engage multiple targets.”

Also, the Air Force says the plane incorporates stealth technologies, but refused to say how high it could fly or what its maximum speed was (though officials said it could achieve speeds “in the Mach 2 area”).

The Air Force said it wants to buy 339 of the planes through 2013 to replace F-15C series aircraft. The F-15 series currently features the Air Force’s most capable, lethal aircraft.

The contract to build the Raptor is shared by Boeing, Pratt & Whitney, and Lockheed-Martin Aeronautics.

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Pentagon delays F-22 production

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