(adds comments on tanker contest, paras 5-7)
By Jim Wolf
ORLANDO, Florida, Feb 26 (Reuters) - The top U.S. Air Force general said he had put forward a fresh request for top-of-the-line F-22 fighter jets that would postpone an otherwise-imminent start to the shutdown of Lockheed Martin Corp's (LMT.N) production line.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said Thursday he had presented the revised acquisition plan to Defense Secretary Robert Gates this week.
He declined to elaborate on their discussion and suggested he did not yet know the fate of the radar-evading fighter, the most advanced in the U.S. arsenal.
"Until he (Gates) renders a decision, I'd prefer to keep the content of that conversation between the (Air Force) secretary and myself, and Secretary Gates," Schwartz told reporters after speaking to an Air Force Association symposium in Orlando, Florida.
Lockheed Martin has said it plans to start phasing out the production line as early as next week unless President Barack Obama decides to buy more than the 183 F-22 Raptors now on order.
Schwartz said the Air Force's No. 1 acquisition priority remained replacing its aging KC-135 tanker fleet. Last year, the Pentagon cancelled a contract with Northrop Grumman Corp (NOC.N), teamed with Europe's EADS EAD.PA, for 179 new tankers -- a deal valued at $35 billion -- after U.S. auditors upheld a protest filed by Boeing Co (BA.N).
Air Force Secretary Thomas Donley, who joined Schwartz at the press briefing, said the timetable for re-running the tanker competition remained under review by the Defense Department.
If new bids are sought this spring, as projected by Gates, "we could potentially be in a position to to make a decision at the very end of the calendar year, more likely in the January time frame," said Donley. The White House said Thursday that it was keeping Donley in his job.
Schwartz said Feb. 18 that the Air Force had scaled back its most recent goal of acquiring a total of 381 F-22s. He said at the time he would not dispute Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said late last year the Air Force was seeking about 60 more than the original 183 F-22s on order, or a total of about 243.
The final aircraft in the current F-22 order are scheduled to be delivered at the end of 2011.
At about $143 million each, not including development costs, the F-22 has become the focus of a debate about hedging for large-scale wars versus fighting guerrillas in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The F-22 has not been used in combat.
Gates, President Barack Obama's sole holdover from the cabinet of former president Geoge W. Bush, has favored instead buying the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, another Lockheed Martin fighter. The F-35, also designed to avoid radar detection, is being co-developed with eight other countries.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said this week that the administration would make its F-22 plans known when it releases full details of the fiscal 2010 budget, likely in April, not by March 1 as had been sought by Congress.
Some F-22 suppliers already had been notified that "we will begin shutdown activities on March 1 unless the President certifies that continued production of the F-22 is in the national interest," Sam Grizzle, a Lockheed spokesman, said earlier this month.
"If the decision on extending F-22 production is not made by March 1, additional funds, already authorized and appropriated by Congress, will be necessary to keep the line open," Grizzle added this week in an email to Reuters. (Reporting by Jim Wolf; Editing by Gary Hill and Lincoln Feast)