By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
President Obama vowed yesterday to veto a pending $680 billion military spending bill for next year if lawmakers set aside funding for more F-22 warplanes than the Defense Department says it needs.
Obama's intervention in the long-simmering debate over the wisdom of ending the F-22 program increased pressure on Senate lawmakers to respect his military priorities. It also sharpened his grievance with House and Senate Democrats who have defied the White House and supported keeping the F-22 production line open. Many such lawmakers, including Massachusetts Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry, have F-22 contractors in their home states.
"We do not need these planes," Obama said in letters to the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), and the committee's senior Republican, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), both of whom oppose the additional F-22s and spoke against them on the Senate floor yesterday. "I will veto any bill that supports acquisition of F-22s beyond the 187 already funded by Congress."
Obama noted in his letters that, under his proposal, production of F-22s would be terminated at roughly the same level proposed by the Defense Department during the Bush administration in 2004. To override the proposal would "waste valuable resources that should be more usefully employed to provide our troops with the weapons that they actually do need," he said.
The president's veto threat reflects his desire to win congressional backing for virtually all of the large revisions in Pentagon spending put forward by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in April, including terminating a half-dozen Cold War-era weapons programs to help pay for arms and equipment that military commanders say they need in Iraq and Afghanistan and for future counterinsurgency efforts.
"I think we've done pretty well" winning support for most of the changes, Gates told reporters last month, with the exception of the proposed $1.75 billion for more F-22s and $439 million for an alternative engine for the F-35 that the Pentagon has long considered wasteful.
Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, released their own letter to lawmakers yesterday, emphasizing that without the additional F-22s proposed by the plane's supporters, the military would still be able to field an estimated 2,500 modern fighters by 2020. China, they said, would have a little more than half that tally, and none as sophisticated. They warned that spending more for the F-22s, as the Senate Armed Services Committee approved in June by a two-vote margin, will come at the expense of more critical Air Force and departmental priorities.
Lockheed Martin, the plane's manufacturer, has been lobbying aggressively to keep the production line open. Yesterday, it circulated an unsigned document on Capitol Hill saying that the plane has "performed extremely well" and that its maintenance problems are abating. The paper was a response to a report in The Washington Post last week disclosing that the Defense Department had calculated the hourly flying cost for an F-22 at $49,808 and that tests last year showed that the mean time between critical failures during an F-22 flight was 1.7 hours.
Lockheed's document confirmed that "structural retrofit repairs" are still being made to F-22s and said the plane's canopy has been redesigned because of problems in maintaining its transparency. But it said that the new canopies will meet requirements and that maintenance downtime is diminishing. Responding to criticism that the plane has never flown over Afghanistan and Iraq, the company said, "The best weapon may be the one that isn't used but instead deters a conflict before it begins."
A separate document circulated by the Air Force in response to the report confirmed that Defense Department tests showed that 30 hours of maintenance were needed for every hour of F-22 flying time and said the F-22 fleet's "mission capable rate" -- a measure of its readiness to meet military requirements -- improved from 62 percent to 68 percent between 2004 and 2008.
A spokeswoman for the Office of the Secretary of Defense said last week that this rate measures only the readiness of planes that are not in depots for repair and noted that the F-22 program and the Air Force traditionally focus on a separate measure of the fleet's availability for missions. That availability, she said, was improving but stood at 55.9 percent for the past five months.