High-end and low-end U.S. Air Force programs are in line for scrutiny as Congress considers the fiscal 2012 budget request.

Lawmakers already are facing the toughest budget negotiations in more than a decade, and the mood to trim the deficit is likely to remain. So at $718 million, the Air Force request to modernize the F-22 Raptor is a tempting line item in the Air Force budget.

Even though Defense Secretary Robert Gates capped production of the aircraft in 2009, its acquisition woes were back in the spotlight this week. The U.S. Government Accountability Office recently tagged the Air Force as the biggest driver of cost overruns within the Defense Department, and a prime culprit within the Air Force was the F-22, Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) said during a House Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing March 31. He added that the fifth-generation fighter was benched during operations in Libya.

“We’re told it’s because they’re not close enough. Well, the whole idea was wherever they are they can get to where they need to be,” Moran says.

The real problem, he says, seems to be that the F-22 can’t communicate with NATO or other U.S. planes, nor can it communicate with the ground to attack targets there.

“Now that we’ve virtually gotten all of them, we’re being told we can modernize them so we can use them,” Moran says. “You have to wonder when it’s going to be completed and when we’re going to do this multi-function advanced datalink that will enable us to communicate with other planes.”

Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz says the F-22 was designed as the premier air-to-air fighter and the plan is to take it from its “niche” to a more expansive role. As for communicating, the F-22 will talk to other F-22s and it can talk with other aircraft that have Link 16 using the Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle as a “gateway.”

Schwartz says, “That is the near-term solution to this problem.”

As for the use of the F-22 in Libya, Schwartz says the mission came together so rapidly that they used primarily aircraft that were already in Europe.

After the hearing, Moran said the “state-of-the-art” Raptor has a long history with cost growth. But asked whether its deficiencies made the case for additional investment or program cuts, he said that in the context of news about continued cost overruns, the issue just needed to be raised.

On the lower end of the fighting spectrum, the Air Force is embarking on a program worth $178 million to buy a squadron of Light Armed Attack Reconnaissance aircraft, similar to ones other countries will buy so it can help those foreign countries build air forces of their own.

In this environment of budget cuts, building the air power of foreign nations may be a tough sell, according to congressional aides.

Air Force leaders nonetheless made the case in response to questions from committee member Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.).

The Afghan government, so far the only government to sign on, is scheduled to pick its Light Air Support platform June 9. Delivery would take place early in 2013, giving time to bring the Afghans up to speed by the time the U.S. begins to draw down its presence in Afghanistan.

Creating an air force involves more than just training new pilots, he says. Air traffic controllers, medical procedures and the day-to-day running of an air base also are required. “This is part of building partner capacity, which we think is important, which would not only provide partners but potentially provide access and support the larger national security strategy,” Schwartz says.