Despite a last-minute blitz by supporters of the F-22 fighter to keep building more of the $350 million planes, the Senate voted 58 to 40 on Tuesday to halt its production. The action, backed by a veto threat from President Obama, is a major victory for Defense Secretary Robert Gates' effort to retool the Pentagon for the kind of wars now being fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama praised Gates for his "outspoken leadership" in slaying the F-22 in the face of strong resistance from its backers. "At a time when we're fighting two wars and facing a serious deficit," he said in the Rose Garden, "this would have been an inexcusable waste of money."
The purchase of more F-22s (beyond the 187 already acquired) was opposed by Obama, Gates, the Air Force leadership and the Senate's top military experts. That forced the F-22's backers to rely on less influential supporters and reasons to buy more planes: arguments from second-tier officers, imaginary threats and the most potent argument of all these days: 25,000 well-paying jobs. "This is a critically important program to maintain superiority not parity, but superiority which has always been our goal in protecting our national-security interests," argued Democratic Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, whose state builds the engines used in the F-22.
The Senate ignored such pleas to approve an amendment by Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Senator John McCain of Arizona, its ranking Republican, to strike the $1.75 billion their committee had added (over Levin and McCain's objections) for seven more F-22s. Both Pentagon and congressional aides say the vote effectively ends the program.
Backers of the F-22 debated the issue as if Congress were considering whether to buy any of the planes, but it had actually already spent $65 billion for 187 of them. Supporters maintained that more F-22s are needed so that each of the 10 Air Expeditionary Forces that project U.S. airpower in different corners of the world could have its own 24-plane squadron. But critics said the Air Force should get used to dispatching such costly warplanes only as needed as it does with bombers and spy planes. "We're not saying the F-22 isn't a good airplane," McCain argued on the floor. "We're saying it is time to end the production of the F-22."
No F-22s have flown over Afghanistan or Iraq, because the plane was designed for long-range air-to-air duels with futuristic fighters that perhaps China eventually might field. "At least [the F-22s] are safe from cyberattack," wrote former Navy Secretary John Lehman over the weekend in the Wall Street Journal. "No one in China knows how to program the '83 vintage IBM software that runs them." And it's hard to talk up the Chinese threat. Pentagon officials say that by 2020, the U.S. military will be flying more than 1,000 so-called fifth-generation fighters the F-22 and less costly F-35s while the Chinese will be flying none.
That left F-22 backers having to exaggerate threats: Army Major General Raymond Rees, adjutant general of the Oregon National Guard, told the Air Force Association, an independent group, that the F-22 is needed because only it can shoot down enemy cruise missiles fired at U.S. cities. "The more research we have done," he told the proAir Force outfit, "the more convinced we are that it is absolutely imperative."
The threat of such an attack carries echoes of the past for those who have been in the Pentagon for a while. In the mid-1980s, the Air Force launched the short-lived Air Defense Initiative, designed to shoot down Soviet cruise missiles launched toward the U.S. "It's an embryonic program that addresses threats that will exist by the late 1990s," a top Air Force planner said in 1986. Five years later, of course, the Soviet Union collapsed. But that threat while it has yet to materialize still lives on in the toolbox of those pressing Congress to spend real money to fight hypothetical threats.