Washington Watch

Aug. 1, 2009

The F-22 Dogfight

The movement to keep USAF’s F-22 in production suddenly went south in late July, with observers now saying it seemed likely to sputter out over the summer.

On Capitol Hill, support for the aircraft at first proved to be unexpectedly strong. Then came a Presidential veto threat, direct personal lobbying by the vice president and Secretary of Defense, and doubtless a great deal of backroom horse trading, all aimed at stopping momentum behind the front-line Air Force fighter. It all led to one of the more contentious debates over a weapon system in decades.

When it was over, the Senate had voted on July 21 to strip from its defense authorization bill $1.75 billion needed to buy seven more of the stealthy Raptors in Fiscal 2010. The money had been put there by the Senate Armed Services Committee, over the objections of its chairman, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), and ranking minority member, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)

About a month earlier, the House, by a strong 389-22 margin, voted to keep the fighter going, adding $369 million in long-lead production money for 12 F-22s, though in Fiscal Year 2011. When the Senate added F-22 money, it was expected that, in the House-Senate budget conference, some number of additional Raptors would be funded.

Then came action in the full Senate. Levin and McCain teamed up on an amendment killing the F-22 funds. When support for his position seemed soft, Levin withdrew it, buying time to persuade colleagues not to keep production going.

Over the next week, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates rushed to President Obama’s home turf of Chicago to give an emotional speech attacking the F-22 as a symbol of wasteful, business-as-usual Washington politics. National media gave the speech favorable coverage. President Obama said in a press conference that he would veto any bill containing money for new F-22s. Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Gen. James E. Cartwright testified before the Senate, claiming that exhaustive analysis showed no more than 187 F-22s are needed (Cartwright was later forced to retract that testimony, admitting that no such studies had been done). The issue was seen as a key test of Obama’s ability to push his defense spending cuts through Congress.

In the final hours before the reintroduced bill came to a vote, Vice President Joe Biden, who was a Senator for 36 years, worked his former colleagues, making a personal appeal to fence-sitters on Obama’s behalf.

Despite spirited debate on the Senate floor, the vote on Levin’s amendment was 58-40 to stop production. Even then, the door remained open for a conference fight, but Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), the powerful head of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee and supporter of continued Raptor production, said he thought the Senate vote “ended the debate.” He pledged to shift the House-provided F-22 money to be used for spare parts and engines.

There was a large raft of reasons why the F-22 money was inserted by the two defense panels, but Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), chair of the House Armed Services air and land forces panel, focused on two in June conversations with reporters.

First, he said, Congress had made clear in 2009 that it wanted the Pentagon to buy 20 additional Raptors in Fiscal 2010, but the Pentagon, citing dubious legal technicalities, had ignored the will of Congress.

The Pentagon needs “to learn who’s in charge,” Abercrombie said, noting that he was particularly incensed by Gates’ efforts to “do everything … to thwart this, … ignore it, … pretend ‘we don’t know what you’re saying,’… stall.”

If the Pentagon doesn’t comply with the 2009 directives, “there’s going to be some severe consequences,” Abercrombie said. He added that Congress “can’t back down” on the F-22. “We can’t allow the Executive to run roughshod over Congressional obligation and responsibility.”

Second, Abercrombie noted that, although defense officials cite “rigorous analysis” that 187 F-22s are sufficient, it hasn’t been provided to Congress. Without it, he said, the HASC believes that some “breathing room” is needed to gain time for thoughtful consideration of the issue, which has ramifications for national strategy, jobs, and the defense industrial base.

The Appropriators Step In

Murtha in late June, added his voice to Abercrombie’s, saying he, too, supported buying more of the stealthy F-22s.

His counterpart on the Senate defense appropriations panel, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), “feels very strongly about it, and I do, too.” Murtha said he’s convinced that Gates’ move to terminate the F-22 “was made based on cost” and not on strategy or analysis. On his panel, “we know the Air Force believes it does not have enough [F-22s] in order to train people, deploy people, and have spares available.” There is “strong sentiment” in the House for further F-22 buys, Murtha said, though “not a majority.”

Abercrombie, asked the previous week about the prospect of a veto over the F-22, shrugged it off.

“Does anybody seriously believe that, given the fact that we have troops in the field in two areas of the world … that the people of this country would … put up with a veto threat over some planes?” He believes President Obama “much too shrewd, much too sophisticated in his understanding of the political situation” not to recognize that all House members “and a considerable number of Senators” are up for re-election in 2010, and that a veto of the defense budget bill would be “overridden in a nanosecond.” The chances of a veto sticking are “about zero, I can tell you right now,” Abercrombie said, adding, “That is not a productive way to go about having this conversation.”

Inouye told reporters the day after the full Senate vote that he was relaxing his determination to get more Raptors built. “As a general rule, we follow the authorizers,” he said. “I just hope that someday we won’t regret this decision.” Other Senators, like Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), vowed to fight on through the conference.

Plan B

The Air Force is taking a calculated risk by accepting fewer F-22s than planned and retiring more than 250 fighters in Fiscal 2010 alone, but there are ways to change course if the world turns more hostile, according to Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz. However, he acknowledged that those ways would be expensive.

The decisions to terminate the F-22 at 187 aircraft, not increase the overall buy of F-35s, and eliminate early the equivalent of 3.4 fighter wings were all based on the “probabilities” that there won’t be any major wars in the next seven years or more, Schwartz said in an interview.

“The risk of a major combat operation is such that we can … take a bit of risk in the breadth of our fighter team,” Schwartz said.

In assessing the threat the Air Force faces, Schwartz said, “it’s fundamentally a question of probabilities.” The opportunity existed to “act today” to save some money “while we have a little more confidence about the strategic setting that we’re in.”

However, “there are always cutouts, … alternatives. There are,” he insisted. “And I’ve thought of them, I know [Air Force Secretary] Mike Donley has; collectively, we have. All of those alternatives require more resources.”

Schwartz would not discuss what those alternatives might be, but “if the circumstances change, we can do any number of things.”

The list of alternatives, however, is short, and was recently discussed in a Congressional Budget Office study. They involve buying more F-35s at a faster pace, buying new fourth generation fighters with the latest upgrades, buying more drones or bombers, or simply accepting fewer capabilities.

However, Schwartz emphatically rejected the notion of buying “new old” fighters to flesh out the combat air forces. Answering a question after a June speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., Schwartz said of buying more F-15s or F-16s, “No. N-O. I can’t make it any clearer.” Spending any money on new production of F-15s and F-16s, which were designed in the pre-stealth era of the 1970s, would simply take money away from buying F-35s, which Schwartz has said must be the backbone fighter for USAF’s future and “the core of our capability.” Buying as many F-35s as possible will keep unit costs low and make the fighter affordable for the US and allies alike, he said. “Ideally,” he said, the F-35 should be bought at a rate of 110 a year.

Corley and the Culture Warriors

Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley believes he and Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz have had some success in changing the service’s culture, shifting it away from simply about flying and fighting, and putting more equitable emphasis on all the roles the Air Force plays.

In a June press conference, Donley asserted that he and Schwartz have tried to take a “much more inclusive view of the contributions of every airman.” Donley noted that the Air Force has, for many years, been driven by the competing visions of “rated communities” in either the bomber or fighter fields, and suggested that other areas that are equally in demand now have been shortchanged in that scheme.

“The vision of the Air Force as flying fighter aircraft and doing air-to-air combat and dropping weapons from a fighter aircraft is a very monocular and narrowly focused vision. It’s a slice of what the United States Air Force is called upon to do” by joint commanders, “and it’s only a slice of what we are doing today. And there are other demands across this spectrum of that we need to be attentive to,” Donley said.

The Air Force is also about crews in missile silos, medical technicians, maintenance people, space, ISR, and a wide range of other specialties, many of them supporting the war effort from Stateside locations, he said.

“I think our airmen appreciate that every airman out there is contributing in all these different disciplines. … We need that broad … effort to get done what we’re doing.”

However, Donley spent much of the event explaining the leadership’s decision to go along with fighter cuts. (See above.)

He believes the decisions to end production of the F-22 and cut 3.4 wings of other fighters from the inventory “are broadly understood, especially by the leadership,” although he acknowledged that “it doesn’t mean they’re all of the same mind. That is certainly not the case, and they all have personal, professional judgments about benefits of various pieces of our Air Force.”

He was specifically asked about the comments of Gen. John D. W. Corley, head of Air Combat Command, who in June answered a query from Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) about the continuing need for the F-22. In a written response, Corley said that in his military judgment, an F-22 inventory of 187 “puts execution of our current national military strategy at high risk in the near- to mid-term.” Corley also said he is aware of “no studies that demonstrate 187 F-22s are adequate to support our national military strategy,” and that a “moderate” level of risk could be obtained with 250 of the fighters. The long-standing Air Force requirement for 381 F-22s, Corley said, would deliver “a tailored package of air superiority to our combatant commanders and provide a potent, globally arrayed, asymmetric deterrent” against adversaries.

Corley said he recognizes that USAF leaders face “tough choices” in balancing military needs with “fiscal realities.”

Donley told reporters he saw nothing wrong with Corley’s comments, given as they were in direct response to a direct question from a member of Congress, and not as an attempt to “lobby.”

“We expect all our officers to answer those letters directly, and we do not … intervene,” Donley said. However, he said that he and Schwartz were aware of Corley’s views before deciding against more F-22s, and discounted them because “we had to make decisions for the corporate Air Force, … taking into account lots of competing demands and requirements.”

Donley also pointed out that there was “no money for the F-22 in our budget baseline. There hasn’t been for a couple of years, now. So, to put the F-22 back in, we would have had to find $13-plus billion. We determined that higher priorities … needed to be sustained.”

Asked about House action to add money for more F-22s, Donley said, “This was a difficult choice. We made it. And I think the Congress still has an opportunity to take a deep breath and really determine whether their judgment to proceed here is really better than that of the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the [JCS], and the leadership of the rest of the department.” However, he added that the Pentagon is asking a hard thing of Congress in seeking permission to stop a successful weapon program. Oversight is “their role; this is what they do.”