Gates Down on the F-22

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The effect is often jarring, in Washington, when someone inside the Beltway utters an uncomfortable truth. That's what Defense Secretary Robert Gates did at the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, putting a damper on pressure from his own Air Force for Congress to buy more F-22 fighters. Gates believes the 183 F-22s currently planned are sufficient. "I know that the Air Force is up here and around talking about 350 or something on that order," the Secretary said. But buying more of the costly F-22 will come at the expense of the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is about half the price.

"The reality is we are fighting two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the F-22 has not performed a single mission in either theater," Gates said. That's the kind of statement that sends generals up the wall — not only because it's true, but because it's the Secretary of Defense who's saying it. And the generals know that the next time some eager-beaver congressional budget-cutters want to trim Pentagon spending, they're going to roll out that quote.

Gates made clear he believes there is a need for the F-22. "It is principally for use against a near-peer in a conflict, and I think we all know who that is," he said coyly. He's referring to China, which today represents the only hope for both the U.S. Air Force and the Navy to justify spending billions of dollars on weapons initially designed to battle the Soviet Union. Since the end of the Cold War, the phrase "near-peer" has increasingly crept into Pentagon documents meaning a potential foe that could almost match the U.S. on the battlefield.

Well, do we need more F-22 to battle Beijing? Once again, Gates depressed the generals with his unassuming tone and logic. "Looking at what I regard as the level of risk of conflict with one of those near-peers over the next four or five years until the Joint Strike Fighter comes along," he said, "I think that something along the lines of 183 is a reasonable buy."

Deep in the Pentagon, Air Force generals know that the Bush Administration's decision to close down the F-22 assembly line won't come into effect until 2010. That gives them time to convince a new Administration that additional F-22s are vital to U.S. security. That's because what Gates finds reasonable, some Air Force generals will treat as treasonable.