What The F-22 Debate Is Really About

f-22_raptorThe news that the vote to remove funding for more F-22s from the defense authorization has been delayed until tomorrow morning offers a good opportunity to restate what’s at issue here. On the one hand, you have a pretty strong (though not complete) consensus in the U.S. military and the Obama administration that more F-22’s — which were originally conceived and designed to counter the Soviet threat — are unsuitable for America’s current national security challenges. In addition to being hugely expensive, the fighters have proven to be a nightmare to maintain.

On the other hand you have some Congresspersons who are afraid of losing defense jobs in their districts, and who greatly appreciate the huge checks that they receive from defense contractors.

So just to be clear, this argument over the F-22, at least as it’s occurring in Congress, not really a debate over defending the country — it’s a test of whether the requirements of electoral politics can outweigh the requirements of American national security as defined by the Department of Defense. This isn’t to suggest that Congress has no role in determining American defense requirements — of course it does, but let’s not pretend that seven extra planes is the difference between air dominance and ceding the skies.

Meanwhile, Mike Goldfarb observes that “one thing that’s been consistent throughout this process has been quiet support for F-22, in contrast to the vocal opposition from Obama, Gates, and McCain. Most people thought that F-22 was DOA as soon as Gates released the administration’s defense budget. But it turns out that support for the program in Congress is pretty broad.”

I don’t know if I’d call Lockheed and Boeing spending $6.5 million and $2.4 million, respectively, on lobbying in the first three months of 2009 “quiet support.” But yes, it is rather impressive what kind of support can be gotten for an item that the military doesn’t want by spreading its production out into 48 different states, donating vast sums of money to various political action committees, and sending armies of lobbyists onto the Hill. It’s almost as if politicians were interested in getting re-elected or something.

No one on either side of the issue was under any illusion that ending the F-22 was going to go down easy. As I noted at the time, Secretary Gates’ announcement of his 2010 defense budget recommendations anticipated the effort to reinstate politically valuable but militarily superfluous boondoggles like the F-22, saying that he knew that “Some will say I am too focused on the wars we are in and not enough on future threats”:

The allocation of dollars in this budget definitely belies that claim. But, it is important to remember that every defense dollar spent to over-insure against a remote or diminishing risk -– or, in effect, to “run up the score” in a capability where the United States is already dominant -– is a dollar not available to take care of our people, reset the force, win the wars we are in, and improve capabilities in areas where we are underinvested and potentially vulnerable. That is a risk I will not take.

Of course, if you’re of the opinion that the defense budget should be a magical place where considerations of costs and benefits need not apply, then this doesn’t mean much. In the reality-based community, however, we understand that calculating and making these sorts of trade-offs is an element of a strong and responsible national defense.