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.

Kill the F-22

An interesting battle is brewing in the Senate.

President Obama placed his political capital on the line Monday and reiterated his threat to veto a military spending bill unless the Senate removed $1.75 billion set aside to buy seven additional F-22 fighter jets.

Mr. Obama stepped up his campaign after liberal Democrats like Senators Edward M. Kennedy and John Kerry of Massachusetts said they supported the purchases, arguing that the program would retain high-paying jobs in many districts nationwide.

The F-22, the world’s costliest fighter jet, is the most prominent weapons system that Mr. Obama wants to cancel or cut in his plan to rein in military spending. A vote by the Senate to keep producing the plane would be an embarrassing setback for him.

Obama’s argument is simple – the military doesn’t need or want more of these planes. Ironically, one of his allies here is John McCain, who deserves credit for his never-ending battle against wasteful military spending.

From a purely political point of view, Obama might welcome this fight, even if an initial loss in the Senate occurs. Obama needs to show he’s willing to get tough on spending, and a veto here would send a strong message.

Gates and Obama getting ready for big cuts in weapons systems

News about the Obama administrations plans for cuts in weapons systems is starting to leak out.

Two defense officials who were not authorized to speak publicly said Gates will announce up to a half-dozen major weapons cancellations later this month. Candidates include a new Navy destroyer, the Air Force’s F-22 fighter jet, and Army ground-combat vehicles, the officials said.

More cuts are planned for later this year after a review that could lead to reductions in programs such as aircraft carriers and nuclear arms, the officials said.

As a former CIA director with strong Republican credentials, Gates is prepared to use his credibility to help Obama overcome the expected outcry from conservatives. And after a lifetime in the national security arena, working in eight administrations, the 65-year-old Gates is also ready to counter the defense companies and throngs of retired generals and other lobbyists who are gearing up to protect their pet projects.

“He has earned a great deal of credibility over the past two years, both inside and outside the Pentagon, and now he is prepared to use it to lead the department in a new direction and bring about the changes he believes are necessary to protect the nation’s security,” said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary.

Gates is not the first secretary to try to change military priorities. His predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, sought to retool the military but succeeded in cancelling only one major project, an Army artillery system.

Former vice president Dick Cheney’s efforts as defense chief under the first President Bush, meanwhile, are cited as a case study in the resistance of the military, defense industry, and Capitol Hill. Cheney canceled the Marine Corps’ troubled V-22 Osprey aircraft not once, but four times, only to see Congress reverse the decision.

The article highlights the difficulties Gates and Obama will face as they try to cancel these unnecessary and ridiculously expensive programs. This time we’re in the middle of a financial crisis, and Republicans have been howling about spending, so now Obama will be able to turn the tables on them.

Here’s more information on the F-22.

Gates’ first showdown looms with a $350 million–a–pop fighter jet. He has to decide by March 1 whether to add more F-22 Raptor fighters to the 183 purchased by the Bush Administration. For years, the Air Force has wanted to double the fleet, while Gates has made clear that he thinks 183 is sufficient. A month ago, some Air Force officials were saying privately that maybe 60 more F-22s would suffice. The Pentagon’s acquisition boss, John Young, recently detailed why more F-22s might be a poor investment. The F-22s that exist are ready to fly only 62% of the time and haven’t met most of their performance goals. “The airplane is proving very expensive to operate, not seeing the mission-capable rates we expected, and it’s complex to maintain,” Young said. Besides, he added, the Air Force plans on spending $8 billion to upgrade most of the F-22s it already has.

We can’t afford to spend more money here.

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