Senate votes to kill the F-22

I’ve been following the Obama administration’s attempts to reform the defense procurement process and cut unnecessary military spending, so I was happy to see the Senate side with the President and kill the F-22 fighter program. Fred Kaplan explains why this is so important.

This is a big deal: The Senate today voted to halt production of the F-22 stealth fighter plane, and it did so 58-40, a margin much wider than expected.

Not only is this a major victory for Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who lobbied strenuously (something he rarely does) to kill this program, and for President Barack Obama, who pledged to veto the defense bill if it contained a nickel for more F-22s. The vote might also mark the beginning of a new phase in defense politics, a scaling-back of the influence that defense contractors have over budgets and policies.

Then again, I might be dreaming. Surely things couldn’t be changing quite that much. Could they?

Kaplan explains how rare this is for Congress to kill a weapons program at the request of the White House. Hopefully a new level of seriousness will prevail on Capital Hill.

Of course, many Senators are still committed to old battles, and many Senators lined up behind the F-22 because of jobs in their districts. Defense contractors and their supporters at the Pentagon have known for years that the best way to preserve a program would be to sprinkle as many jobs around the country in as many districts as possible. As a result, many Democrats, including liberal Senators like Barbara Boxer, opposed the administration here and tried to keep the program going. On the other side, many Republicans who didn’t have a dog in this fight were willing to back the White House. Of course it helped that John McCain was a fierce advocate for killing the F-22.

One of the worst examples of putting politics over the national interest is Chris Dodd, who’s fighting for his political life as he faces a tough re-election campaign next year.

The floor debate was more transparently self-interested than usual. Dodd argued with intense passion that killing the F-22 would create a “dangerous gap” in America’s technical know-how. The next advanced fighter jet, the F-35, won’t enter production until 2014. The highly skilled workers who make F-22s can’t be expected to hang around four years; they’ll get different jobs, and they’ll be unavailable when the country needs them.

Levin took the floor to point out that production of F-35s actually starts next year and that the FY 2010 budget contains money to build 30 of them. In other words, Levin said, “There is no gap.” He wondered where Dodd got his information. Dodd replied that it came from the defense contractors. That’s where he probably got the whole speech, too.

We’re also seeing how important it was for Obama to keep Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Gates has slashed or killed a bevy of outmoded, over-designed, or unnecessary weapons systems in this budget. One or both houses of Congress have gone along with almost all of his swipes. Part of the reason for this compliance is Gates himself, who is almost universally respected; he’s known to be a hawk (a centrist hawk, but a hawk all the same), and he’s worked for Republicans as well as Democrats. In fact, he is a Republican.

Maybe it takes a Republican defense secretary to usher in a new era of defense politics. Are we in fact on the verge of such an era? There are many reasons to be skeptical (the annals of history among them), but what happened today might be a harbinger of something genuinely new.

  

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