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.

Cutting Cold-War weapons systems

When Barack Obama kept Robert Gates as Defense Secretary, most liberals were disappointed, and the news media focused on how this might impact Obama’s decisions regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While those issues are certainly important, Obama and Gates will be embarking on a mission to radically change the way the United States purchases military equipment.

But if you are a defense contractor who has enjoyed a decade of bottomless Pentagon funding, it was Gates’ comments about a struggle much closer to home that are keeping you up at night. “The spigot of defense spending that opened on 9/11 is closing,” he said. “With two major campaigns ongoing, the economic crisis and resulting budget pressures will force hard choices on this department.”

Gates, the U.S.’s 22nd Defense Secretary, has declared a low-key war against the military services and the way they develop and buy the weapons they use to defend the nation. Up until now, he has done that mostly by jawboning: The U.S. can’t “eliminate national-security risks through higher defense budgets, to do everything and buy everything,” Gates says in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. That futile quest has led to weapons that “have grown ever more baroque, have become ever more costly, are taking longer to build and are being fielded in ever dwindling quantities.”

But his war of words is about to become very real. As he prepares a budget for next year, Gates must decide the fate of a number of fantastically expensive weapons programs the military services say they need. He can’t fund them all–and might be wise to take a knife to them all. In this, Gates has little choice: the military’s annual budget has finished growing, and the billions it once imagined it might spend on future weapons have evaporated. So cuts–and big ones–are coming, and Gates will be the man who makes them.

Though Gates was hired by George W. Bush to clean up the mismanaged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates’ greatest legacy may come in what he calls a “strategic reshaping” that better outfits the U.S. military to wage coming wars. Future weapons buys must “be driven more by the actual capabilities of potential adversaries,” Gates told Congress a few weeks ago, “and less by what is technologically feasible given unlimited time and resources.” Pentagon procurement, he said, is plagued by a “risk-averse culture, a litigious process, parochial interests, excessive and changing requirements, budget churn and instability and sometimes adversarial relationships within the Department of Defense.”

With the release today of Barack Obama’s budget outline, we’re seeing that Obama and Gates are serious about these changes. You’re also hearing Obama talk about how we can’t afford any more “Cold War” weapons systems.

The articles linked above is worth a read. It discusses specific weapons systems, and the stunning costs associated with systems that we no longer need and may be obsolete in a world where inexpensive drones can do the job of piloted planes.

This will not be an easy fight. The problem is that Congress often overrides the needs and requests of the military. Many conservative Senators will scream about wasteful spending, but then they will defend grossly expensive weapons systems if it affects jobs in their districts. Democrats do the same thing.

Based on the “Cold War” rhetoric, it looks like Obama is ready for a fight. He should bring along enough Democrats, especially if they have to choose between health care and these weapons systems.

They’re just getting started

Now that the stimulus package has been approved, Fortune offers an inside look at Barack Obama’s economic team.

At this White House there’s no time to settle in. Even as their wall art sat in bubble wrap, Obama’s economic team was pushing through Congress the most expensive emergency spending package in the nation’s history. And they were helping Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner craft his own sweeping plan to rescue the nation’s banking and housing sectors, phase two of a $700 billion effort launched by his predecessor, Hank Paulson.

That’s just the start. The team is fast at work on health-care reform, energy independence, vast changes in banking regulations, and the possibility of a “grand bargain” to curb entitlement costs that envisions historic sacrifices on both sides of the aisle: Republicans supporting tax increases and Democrats conceding to benefits cuts. “This is not a small-ball President,” says Summers, Obama’s top economic advisor and chair of the National Economic Council. “He wants to take on the large issues.”

There is a breadth and breathlessness to these under-takings, a frenzy of policymaking that will shape the contours of America’s economic future. Top Obama advisors who talked (often as they walked) with Fortune in early February put a premium on speed – speed to catch the right moment to turn around a deepening recession, speed to take advantage of this moment of crisis to put in place a Democratic vision of government’s role, speed to pass major legislation while the President is riding high in the polls. Obama’s White House has been endlessly compared to Lincoln’s team of rivals, or J.F.K.’s best and brightest. But we might also toss in the image of Sandra Bullock trying to control a runaway busload of passengers before the bomb goes off. (That scene was of course from the movie – “Speed.”)

It’s becoming clear that the upcoming budget will drive home Obama’s desire to pursue a very ambitios agenda.

The President’s first budget, expected to be unveiled by budget director Peter Orszag within weeks, will chart much of the administration’s ambitious course beyond stimulus and TARP – and it will be a document that Obama’s own shop, not Congress, produces. “In his budget the President is going to lay down markers around his seriousness on all the major issues,” notes Summers.

It’s likely that the decisions and debates on these issues – ranging from health-care reform to what government programs should be cut to ease the deficit – will keep on coming at Congress at mind-numbing speed. The President wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’m anxious to see which cuts they will be proposing. Our current budget is littered with programs that waste money, from farm subsidies, unnecessary weapons systems and much of the war on drugs. It’s also littered with tax loopholes bought by lobbyists, along with ridiculous restrictions preventing the government from negotiating bulk prices for drugs purchased by Medicare. If Obama can offer some serious cuts here, he’ll gain considerable credibility in his attempt to reorder the priorities of the nation.

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