Gates Makes Impassioned Case for Ending F-22 Program

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is working on acquisition reform.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is working on acquisition reform. (By Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)
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By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 17, 2009

CHICAGO, July 16 -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates made an impassioned case Thursday for terminating the F-22 program after production of 187 planes, as the Obama administration sought to blunt a bipartisan push to add money to the defense budget for the fighter jet.

"If we can't bring ourselves to make this tough but straightforward decision -- reflecting the judgment of two very different presidents, two different secretaries of defense, two chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the current Air Force secretary and chief of staff -- where do we draw the line?" he said in a speech at the Economic Club of Chicago. "If we can't get this right, what on earth can we get right?"

In recent days, House and Senate lawmakers from both parties have defied the White House and put money back into the $680 billion defense spending bill to keep the F-22 production line open, prompting President Obama to threaten a veto. It is not clear whether F-22 backers have enough votes to keep the program going. "It looks pretty close," Gates told reporters.

For Gates, the Lockheed Martin F-22, which has been in development for almost three decades, has become a potent symbol of why the Pentagon needs to change the way it prepares for future wars. The high-tech aircraft was designed to counter Soviet jets in the waning days of the Cold War. Today, no U.S. adversaries have a plane in development that can match it or the F-35, which the Pentagon plans to deploy over the next decade.

China will not be able to field a similar plane until about 2025, when the United States will have more than 1,700 F-35s, Gates said.

The defense secretary warned that any effort to add planes to the budget would rob dollars from more pressing weapons programs that are needed for the conflict in Afghanistan or for battles with future adversaries unlikely to challenge the United States in a major conventional war. He singled out the threat posed by extremist groups such as Lebanon's Hezbollah, which "currently has more rockets and high-end munitions -- many quite sophisticated and accurate -- than all but a handful of countries."

The normally staid Gates became especially animated Thursday describing his frustration with lawmakers' efforts to keep building F-22s. "The more they buy of stuff we don't need, the less we have available for the stuff we do need," he told reporters, his voice rising. "It is just as simple as that. It ain't a complicated problem."

Even if Congress acquiesces on the F-22, Gates warned, the Pentagon has to do a better job of setting realistic goals for its weapons programs.

"We must break the old habit of adding layer upon layer of cost, complexity and delay to systems that are so expensive and so elaborate that only a small number can be built and are usable in only a narrow range of low-probability scenarios," he said.

Instead he called for a portfolio of weapons that would offer the United States "maximum versatility" against a wide range of threats.

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