In the Capitol Hill office of Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), one finds a glistening model of the Air Force’s top modernization priority, the F-22 air superiority fighter. Indeed, the Raptor enjoys a place of prominence among numerous representations of warships and military aircraft displayed by the lawmaker.
Lewis laughingly assures an interviewer that the fighter model was not put there for target practice. He calls the Raptor a “fantastic” airplane, adding that, “from what we’ve seen so far, it’s got phenomenal potential.” Then, he quickly adds, “We’re just saying maybe we should test it first.”
Lewis’s view about the F-22 is significant because he chairs the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on defense, one of the handful of panels with life-and-death control over defense programs.
From that influential position, the 11-term Southern California Republican led a surprise attack on procurement of the F-22 during last year’s deliberations on the Fiscal 2000 defense budget. USAF officials said he could have killed the program.
In a closed-door vote last July, with no warning, the subcommittee unanimously accepted Lewis’s proposal to eliminate $1.8 billion in funding for the first six full-production F-22s, leaving only $1.2 billion for continued testing. That view was accepted later by the full appropriations committee and then by the full House of Representatives.
Although about $1 billion, to buy six test aircraft, was restored in the subsequent HouseSenate conference on the defense appropriations, the House action technically delayed the start of production of the Raptor for at least a year. Future production funding was made contingent on the results of a prescribed level of flight testing.
“We did not, as a result of the conference, get 100 percent of what we were asking for in our bill,” Lewis said, “but we did get all of the expenditures that go to the F-22 [put] in the R&D [Research and Development] line. We caused a serious pause as far as the production was involved. That’s important. We have to get the testing done.”
The unexpected move against the Raptor generated lots of speculation, in the Pentagon and in the news media, about Lewis’s motives. Some reports indicated he had a secret agenda, perhaps even nursed a personal vendetta against Lockheed Martin, the F-22 prime contractor.
In an interview with Air Force Magazine, the lawmaker dismissed all of the theories. He specifically noted that he has supported Lockheed Martin projects repeatedly in the past and has received generous campaign contributions from the firm. “I don’t have any battle with them,” said Lewis. “Generally speaking, I’ve been supportive of defense and supportive of their interests.”
Instead, he said, the action on the F-22 was an attempt to open a debate on defense priorities and a response to what he claimed to be the mounting costs of the program and the lack of flight testing. He said, “The key to the F-22 decision, when we called for a pause, was the reality that we have done so little of the real testing … that involves significant stuff, beyond [the question of] can the thing fly.”
Lewis said he and his subcommittee members believed that imposition of a delay in production was essential to keeping the Raptor from repeating the mistakes of the B-1 and B-2 bomber programs. “It doesn’t take a genius to go back and look at why we had the problem with the B-1 that we had,” Lewis said. Because the B-1 was rushed into production without adequate testing nearly two decades ago, Lewis argued, “we’re reinventing that baby again every year. And it still doesn’t work like we wanted it to. Why can’t we learn these things?”
Lewis presented another rhetorical question. If the F-22 is indeed the best in the world by far, would anyone want it to become so expensive that the Air Force can only afford a handful of them, as was the case with the B-2? With more than $20 billion already invested, the F-22 program could go as high as $70 billion with the planned buy of 339 fighters.
“I don’t think so,” he said, “but nobody was willing to push that edge. And we pushed it. Now we have a debate going on, the healthiest debate we’ve had for a long, long time” over the proper priorities for using limited defense funds, Lewis said.
“Suddenly, the [Defense] Department, as well as the other branches, has realized that Congress is serious about oversight,” he continued.
Praise for Some–Not All
In the interview, Lewis praised most of the leaders of the armed services for their willingness to discuss new ideas and priorities with his panel. He was particularly pleased with the attitude of Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the new Army Chief of Staff.
However, Lewis did not express such positive sentiments about the Air Force leadership. He commented, “To this point, I can’t say that the Air Force has been forthcoming or very responsive.” He called that attitude “disappointing” and indicated that it could hurt the Air Force in the next budget cycle, which he said is going to be even tougher.
Lewis’s assault on the high-visibility F-22 program clearly shocked the Air Force leadership, Lockheed Martin, and most Capitol Hill observers. No one had anticipated such a move from a relatively low-profile lawmaker with a moderate to conservative image and a solid record of support for defense spending.
The 65-year-old former insurance executive had served in the California Assembly for 10 years before winning an open House seat in 1978. In both the state legislature and in Congress, Lewis has shown a knack for working with people on both sides of the aisle to get things done.
In the past, he took controversial stands only on issues that deeply concerned his district, which runs from the populous exurbs east of Los Angeles into the lightly settled high desert. For example, he stunned conservatives early in his career by pushing strong clean-air measures. He did so because of the life-threatening smog in his district, and he created a minor stir in 1995 by trying to delete funding for the National Park Service because of constituent opposition to the efforts to tie up more of the California desert as parks or wilderness.
The district also includes the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, the Army’s Ft. Irwin, and China Lake Naval Weapons Center, giving Lewis a natural interest in defense spending.
Although Lewis was ousted from a GOP House leadership position in 1992 because he was not considered conservative enough, he brags that the appropriations subcommittee he chaired in the previous session cut spending more than any other panel. When he took over the defense subcommittee last year, Lewis said he felt the weight of “this very serious new responsibility” and began the year “by doing a lot of homework.”
That included a lot of reading and talking to national security experts, including some previous defense secretaries and retired generals, he said.
When he asked them what they would do if they had his job, Lewis said, “more than one” suggested that he should look at the three different fighter programs currently under development or in early production.
The total cost of the three fighters–the F-22, the Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornet, and the Joint Strike Fighter–could run as high as $350 billion, he said.
“It was suggested by more than one that, if we reduced one, or did some rethinking, it might save $60 to $80 billion.
“We don’t have enough defense money to go around. So you really have to do the homework that’s necessary if we’re going to begin to make sure that America is the strongest country well into the next century,” he said.
Lewis said the proposal to stop F-22 production “was very quickly a unanimous decision by the subcommittee–a subcommittee that has been, by far, the strongest supporter of national defense systems in the entire Congress.”
He noted that the move was supported by Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., a former Navy fighter pilot whose district includes a TRW facility, one of the major suppliers for the F-22’s integrated avionics systems.
The Military Responds
Surprised by the subcommittee’s action, the Air Force responded with a public information campaign to nip the revolt in the bud. In briefings for members of Congress and the news media, Air Force leaders argued that the F-22 was essential to national security and that the program was being tightly managed.
The Air Force was supported in public statements by Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and in a letter by all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including its Chairman, Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton. The Air Force and Lockheed Martin also rallied the chain of subcontractors to pressure the House members who represent their workers.
F-22 advocates warned that delaying production could kill the program by sending the cost soaring and by driving some of the suppliers out of business. “It was a lobbying game that was too little, too late,” Lewis said, referring to the attempt to head off an adverse vote in the full House.
The Senate, however, already had approved the full $3.1 billion funding request, including the money to start production. That set up a prolonged and heated battle in the HouseSenate conference between Lewis and Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who chairs both the Senate Appropriations Committee and its defense appropriations subcommittee.
Although the compromise provided money for the six test aircraft, it also included $300 million for termination if the Raptor cannot meet the test goals set in the bill. Lewis attributes the low level of flight testing to the Congressional cost cap on the F-22 program. “To stay under the cap, they eliminated testing,” he said.
Lockheed Martin has been flight-testing the Raptor’s avionics and computers in a modified jetliner. Lewis predicted that, when it tries to take those critical components and “stuff them in the nose of an F-22, [the contractor] is going to have some problems.”
He added, “Let’s find out what the problems are before we go out into the production line and have to come back and retrofit it.”
The veteran Congressman indicated that the F-22 had been exerting a too-powerful influence on USAF. “The Air Force has been so concentrated on this one asset that they have been letting all other major areas of needs, procurementwise, almost fall off the table,” said Lewis. “There were a lot of things that weren’t done. Upgrading the F-15, for example. It was the F-15 and other things, other assets, that did so well in Kosovo. The weakness of our air campaign in Kosovo was that we were very close to being too short” of some critical aircraft and weapons.
He went on, “It was a clear illustration that we were behind the eight ball in terms of the number of immediate airpower assets. And it makes our point, to me, that we need to have balance, instead of having those [other] procurement lines almost dying because of a fixation on fighter aircraft.”
Delivering a Message
He noted that his subcommittee used some of the money cut from F-22 production to buy other assets, including more F-15s and F-16s. “We attempted to deliver the message to the Air Force that, in terms of assets, you can do better,” Lewis said.
But, he added, “I must say, we have not had the same kind of responsiveness to serious questions about the future of the military from the Air Force that we’ve had from the other branches, and that’s a disappointment.”
Lewis particularly contrasted the Air Force’s attitude with the flexibility and cooperation shown by Shinseki when the subcommittee denied the Army some of its multiyear procurement funds.
“He worked with us, decided there were things that could be done,” he said of the new Army leader. “The Army’s been very responsive, very forthcoming, and I’m very excited about this new vision of the new Chief.” Lewis said he was not sure why the Air Force was unwilling to discuss the subcommittee’s concerns. “But I do know that the Army has benefitted a lot from interaction and responsiveness,” he said.
Shinseki has not yet provided a full picture of his vision for a lighter, more mobile Army. However, Lewis said, “We had enough communications that I was able to lay a foundation in this bill so that the [Fiscal] 2000 bill is doing an awful lot to help him do what he’s looking to do” in the future.
He continued, “There is little doubt that the Air Force has been so wedded to the idea that swirls around the F-22 that they were thinking of almost nothing else in terms of priorities, and it is beyond their imagination that someone might one day have the audacity to question that.”
Looking ahead, Lewis expressed confidence that the F-22 program would meet the requirements set by Congress and go into production. “We’re going to have it. Period. No doubt about it, we’re going to be using those technologies.
“But we need to examine and re-examine just how much of X or Y asset we can take,” he added.
In the next budget cycle, Lewis said his subcommittee would take a hard look at major programs from all the services. He cited as examples the Army’s RAH-66 Comanche helicopter and the Navy’s program of scrapping ships and submarines with useful life to gain money to buy new vessels so the shipyards can stay open.
He also planned to study the JSF program, which is a major priority for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. Lewis could not predict what would happen to the JSF, but he observed that “we do need to have a [future] replacement for the F-16 mission.”
He also called for more money for defense Research and Development. “I think we have to continue on the edge of R&D. That’s what will make us the strongest.”
Lewis said the committee would make sure “that we continue training and retraining the wonderful people that we have” and expressed concern about “this ever-shrinking force.”
In Lewis’s words: “My bias tells me we’ve gone too far with all of our branches. So we have to do a better job in figuring out how we deal with that.” And, he said, “It’s probably time that we begin examining what is the real threat out there.”
Although he was “very optimistic” about an emerging consensus between Congress and the Administration on the need for more defense spending, Lewis warned, “Next year is going to be a lot tougher than this year.”
And the following years will not be any easier because the taxpayers “like this suggestion that we might be on a path to eliminate the national debt,” he said.
Otto Kreisher is a Washingtonbased military affairs reporter and regular contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “A Talk With Chief Finch,” appeared in the December 1999 issue.