War Stories

They Scrapped the F-22!

The remarkable vote to kill the plane and what it means for America’s military future.

An F-22

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?

In any case, the blow against the F-22 is a substantial step. Gates has been publicly inveighing against the fighter for more than a year, calling it a Cold War relic, noting that it hasn’t been used in any of the wars we’ve fought lately, and noting that our current stock—187 F-22s, which have cost $60 billion to develop, build, and maintain to date—is more than adequate to handle the extremely narrow and unlikely range of threats for which they might be suitable in the future.

The Air Force brass wanted $4 billion in the fiscal year 2010 budget to build 20 more F-22s. Gates slashed the request to zero. The Senate Armed Services Committee voted, 13-11, to shift $1.7 billion from other programs in order to fund another seven planes. That’s the line item that the full Senate excised this afternoon.

The amendment to halt the plane’s production was co-sponsored by Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz. McCain, who has never been an F-22 fan, went so far as to quote at some length President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address, which warned of the “military-industrial complex,” though McCain noted that the proper phrase should be the “military-industrial-congressional complex.”

That’s really what the F-22 has come to be about. The Air Force shrewdly spread the plane’s contracts to firms in 46 states, thus giving a solid majority of senators—and a lot of House members, too—a financial (and, therefore, electoral) stake in the program’s survival.

Widening the constituency is a tried-and-true method of keeping dubious weapons systems alive. It dates back to 1960, when the managers of the Army’s Nike-Zeus missile-defense program set up subcontractors in 37 states, fearing that the incoming president, John F. Kennedy, would try to kill the system. (Their fear was well-founded; Kennedy and his defense secretary, Robert McNamara, did kill the Nike-Zeus, though the chiefs later pushed through an upgrade.)

The long history of congressional-contractor relations makes today’s Senate vote all the more remarkable. The vote was not along party lines: 15 Republicans sided with Obama and Gates to kill the F-22; 15 Democrats (counting Sen. Joe Lieberman, who’s an Independent) voted to keep the plane alive.

Rather, it was a vote that reflected corporate contracts. The floor leaders of the faction in favor of more F-22s were Sens. Saxby Chambliss, a Republican from Georgia, where the F-22 is assembled, and Chris Dodd, a Democrat from Connecticut, where parts of the plane are built. Joining this strange couple were such erstwhile doves as Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California, which also hosts several F-22 contractors.

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.

Chambliss made an even dafter mistake. While arguing that the military needs at least 240 F-22s to maintain its air superiority, he quoted a retired Air Force general as noting that no U.S. soldier has been killed by an enemy aircraft since 1951. Any number of senators must have scratched their heads at that one. If we’ve been able to ward off air threats so definitively with our current level of technology, why do we need even 187 F-22s, much less 240? And, by the way, are the 1,000 or more F-35s we plan to buy really necessary, either?

Ultimately, Levin-McCain won for two reasons. First, they—along with Obama and Gates—had plenty of cover. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, including the Air Force chief of staff and the secretary of the Air Force, all endorsed the decision that 187 F-22s were enough. (Several other Air Force generals and colonels have been battling on behalf of the plane behind the scenes, but that’s another story.) Second—and this is a bit revolutionary, too—their case simply made sense.

In a July 16 speech at the Chicago Economic Club, Gates noted that the budget is “a zero-sum game.” Every defense dollar spent “to fund excess or unneeded capacity” is a dollar unspent on what we need. And nobody can really make a good case on why the F-22 is needed.

It is no longer possible, Gates went on,

to design and buy—as we have the last 60 years—only the most technologically advanced versions of weapons to keep up with or stay ahead of another superpower adversary, especially one that imploded nearly a generation ago. … We must break the old habit of adding layer upon layer of cost, complexity, and delay to systems that are so expensive and so elaborate that only a small number can be built, and that are then usable only in a narrow range of low-probability scenarios.

That’s the F-22 in a nutshell.

The battle, of course, is not over. Last month, the House of Representatives passed a defense bill that includes $369 million to buy advanced parts for 12 more F-22s, to be fully funded in FY 2011. President Obama said at the time that he would veto the bill if it included even this reduced level of funding. It is widely believed that the Senate position will prevail in conference committee.

The debate won’t necessarily end there, either. The last time Congress sided with an administration on killing a big-ticket weapon system was in 1977, when President Jimmy Carter halted the B-1 bomber. But, in fact, he didn’t. Carter ordered the Air Force to build a new plane that would launch long-range cruise missiles rather than penetrate Soviet air defenses and drop bombs. But the Air Force generals simply put a few cosmetic modifications on the B-1 and called it a new plane. The following year, when the White House budget advisers—who caught on to this trick—briefed Carter on the defense budget, they labeled one chart “Cruise Missile Carrier Aircraft (B-1).” According to one former official who was in the room, Carter, who’d thought the B-1 was really dead, looked at the chart and said, “I must be dreaming.”

This sort of flimflammery isn’t likely to repeat itself—at least, not now. Gates is more committed to halting the F-22 than Carter’s defense secretary, Harold Brown, was to killing the B-1. And the Cold War is over; the B-1 made more sense in 1977 than the F-22 makes in 2009.

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.