The Air Force Reaches for the Sky

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Judson Broehmer / USAF / Getty

An F-22 Raptor fighter jet

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have worn down the nation's ground forces, stretching those serving in the Army and Marines and wearing out their gear at an unprecedented rate. So, it's no surprise that the nation's ground-pounders would be seeking the most from the ever-cooperative members of the House Armed Services Committee. For years, that Pentagon-pleasing panel has asked the services to send it a wish list — lawmakers prefer to call it an "unfunded requirements list" — of budget items they desire but which have not been approved by their penny-pinching civilian overseers, i.e. the Defense Secretary and the President.

Earlier this month, the Army stepped up to the plate and asked for $4 billion more than the $141 billion it is slated to receive in 2009. The Marines asked for $3 billion more than their proposed ration of $25 billion. The Navy asked for $5 billion to be added to its bottom line of $124 billion. But all those sums added together don't equal the — hold your breath, dear taxpayer — $19 billion that the Air Force wants over and above its $144 billion request.

A quick flip through the 11-page list turns up a $13 million "requirement" for dorm furniture — an item that may justify the other services dubbing it the "Chair Force" because so many of its people are behind desks. In response to questions from TIME on the list's contents and cost, the Air Force issued a statement Thursday saying the list contains only its "most critical needs." Lieutenant General Dave Deptula, the Air Force's top intel officer, says his service's needs "are severe and getting worse," and that the list reflects the gap "between where we are and where we need to be."

Highlighting the huge request is a proposal by the Air Force to trump its civilian leaders and buy twice as many F-22 jets as now planned, while hyping the threats to justify the buy. China and India are, in the Air Force's eyes, the 21st century equivalent of the Soviet Union, requiring billions in new aircraft that even a hawkish Republican President doesn't think are needed. More critically, every dollar spent on supersonic aircraft is a dollar that isn't spent on the kind of troops and materiel needed to wage the two irregular wars the nation is now fighting, and which many experts predict will be the kinds of wars fought for the next generation or two.

The military is hardly starving. The Pentagon's proposed 2009 Defense Budget is twice the size of the budget President Bush inherited from Bill Clinton. Even without the nearly $200 billion for the wars, the $515 billion tab is on par with the defense budgets of World War II. "Today, free-flowing funding has fundamentally undermined all budget discipline in the Pentagon," says Gordon Adams, who oversaw military spending from a senior post in the Clinton White House.

Take the fight over the F-22. The Pentagon has declared it wants to cap procurement at 183 planes, for $65 billion. But the Air Force wants 380 of them. "We think that [183] is the wrong number," General Bruce Carlson, the Air Force's top weapons buyer, told reporters at a Feb. 13 industry gathering. "We're committed to funding 380," he added. "We're building a program right now to do that." Defense Secretary Robert Gates called Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne after reading Carlson's comments in Aerospace Daily, a trade paper, and told him to remind Carlson who's the boss. (Wynne did, and issued a statement saying the Air Force "wholeheartedly supports" the Administration's proposal.)

Days earlier, Carlson said that today's U.S. Air Force "simply cannot fight and win against the fleet of airplanes that have been developed and are flying in India, China, and so forth," a claim questioned by many experts. But his view has been reinforced by the companies employing 25,000 workers in 44 states building the F-22 — the prime contractor is aerospace giant Lockheed Martin — and their allies in Congress. That is what is so insidious about these lists: once Congress gets a hold of them, they're used as pile drivers to pound extra billions into the Pentagon budget, generally by lawmakers seeking to fund jobs in their districts.

In addition to more F-22 fighters, the Air Force's wish list also seeks more F-35 fighters (needed for "the Required Force"), more C-130 and C-17 cargo planes ("Part of Required Force"), and more unmanned Global Hawk drones (these would merely "Support Required Force"). Unmanned aircraft are supposed to be cheaper, but the price tag on these runs more than $120 million apiece. More than $1 billion is being sought for 11 passenger planes, seven of them Gulfstream Vs favored by Apple's Steve Jobs and Sir Elton John (no mention of any Required Force justification here).

Then there's the line item seeking 100,600 handguns (there are 330,000 people in the Air Force) featuring "improved ergonomic design and higher caliber effectiveness" at $1,157 a pop. The service also wants 210,000 M-4 carbines at $1,747 a clip. For years, the Air Force has complained about the Army having its own air force. Now, at long last, the Army may be able to complain about the Air Force having its own army.