Pentagon Chief Calls for Cuts; Congress Opens Fire

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The F-22 Raptor fighter can cruise at speeds greater than Mach 1.5 without afterburners. It is virtually invisible to enemies, carries two 1,000-pound missiles and can turn on a dime.

But there is one foe the F-22 was not designed to defeat: Defense Secretary Bob Gates.

"We will end production of the F-22 fighter," Gates announced matter-of-factly in the hushed Pentagon briefing room yesterday, dispatching Lockheed Martin's $140-million-a-pop aircraft without even a hint of regret. "For me," he added, "it was not a close call."

The soft-spoken Kansan delivered the news not from a lectern but from his preferred position, in a leather armchair set up behind a table, giving the impression he was on the set of Jim Lehrer's "NewsHour." But the understated delivery obscured the boldness of what Gates was attempting: Calmly and methodically, he posed a direct challenge to the military-industrial complex.

Boeing's Future Combat Systems fighting vehicles -- kaboom!

Lockheed's multiple-kill vehicle: killed.

Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics' DDG 1000 Zumwalt-class destroyer with Raytheon electronics? Gates sunk their battleship.

The Lockheed VH-71 presidential helicopter and Boeing's C-17 cargo plane? SecDef shot them down, too.

It was the opening shot in what is certain to be a long war. In many ways, Gates, in taking on the defense contractors and their many friends in Congress, has invited a fight with an opponent more potent than any he has faced in Iraq and Afghanistan as President Obama's -- and before that President George W. Bush's -- defense secretary.

Obama has already surprised Washington with his ambitious efforts to pump hundreds of billions of dollars into the economy, overhaul health and energy policy, and take command of the auto industry. But when it comes to changing the way this town does business, Obama and Gates have attempted a whole new level of difficulty in challenging the combined might of Boeing, Lockheed, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and General Dynamics.

The contractors held fire yesterday -- Lockheed and Raytheon said they were "assessing" while Boeing announced it was "studying" -- and defense stocks rose, either because investors were expecting worse, or more likely, because they suspect Gates's proposal will never get through Congress. To that end, lawmakers' guns were already blazing yesterday, despite Easter recess. Just 24 minutes after Gates finished his announcement, a bipartisan group of senators including Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) fired off a letter to Obama saying Gates's proposed cuts in missile defense "could undermine our emerging missile defense capabilities to protect the United States against a growing threat."

Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, served notice that "the buck stops with Congress," while Jack Murtha (D-Pa.), undergoing knee surgery, managed to issue a statement saying he would weigh Gates's ideas "in the context of current and future threats."

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