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The Air Force said Wednesday it bought specially made pliers for $999.20 each but defended the purchase as necessary to modify the aircraft engines in its F-111 fighter-bombers.

"We feel that's a fair price to be paying for this specialized tool. There's nothing else that can do the job," said Maj. Victor Andrijauskas of the Air Force Logistics Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.The purchase and price were first reported by Knight-Ridder news service Tuesday.

Andrijauskas said the Air Force bought four of the pliers, beginning in September 1987, at a cost of $999.20 each.

Bob Carroll, a spokesman for Pratt & Whitney, the aircraft engine manufacturer that supplied the tool to the Air Force, insisted in a phone interview from the company's West Palm Beach, Fla., headquarters that it was "a custom-made installation tool" and "not a set of pliers."

"You can't buy this at Hechingers," Carroll said, referring to chain of East Coast hardware stores. "The only similarity between it and a pair of pliers is that they both meet in the middle."

The proper name of the 9-inch tool, however, is the "transition duct floatwall installation and removal pliers," the Air Force said.

Comparing the tool, which has curved handles, to normal pliers would be like "comparing a kitchen knife to a scalpel," Andrijauskas said.