By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
The Senate voted Tuesday to kill the nation's premier fighter-jet program, embracing by a 58 to 40 margin the argument of President Obama and his top military advisers that more F-22s are not needed for the nation's defense and would be a costly drag on the Pentagon's budget in an era of small wars and counterinsurgency efforts.
The decision was a key policy victory for Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who has been campaigning against the plane since April as a linchpin of his effort to "fundamentally reshape the priorities of America's defense establishment and reform the way the Pentagon does business -- in particular, the weapons we buy and how we buy them," as he put it Thursday in a speech in Chicago.
Gates had depicted the F-22, which was conceived in the 1980s for aerial combat against future Soviet fighters, as a "silver-bullet solution" to a high-technology threat that has not materialized. He said the F-22s already on order, in conjunction with other warplanes such as the more modern F-35, will adequately defend the country for decades to come.
His view that the Defense Department needs to "think about and prepare for war in a profoundly different way" than it has in the past won support from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Air Force's two senior leaders during internal budget deliberations. But ending the $65 billion F-22 program was strongly opposed by others in the Air Force and by the contractors and trade unions that have benefited from it.
Lawmakers debated over several days, as they have for years, whether the fighters are needed to counter a military threat from Russia or China, but the nation's current economic travails might have played a larger role than military strategy in the vote. Although the plane's supporters worried that its cancellation would eliminate thousands of jobs at a time of economic hardship, its critics argued just as passionately that the plane -- which has not been flown in Iraq or Afghanistan -- deserved no additional funds at a time of pressing social needs.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), shortly before the vote, noted that National Guard members from his state are not asking for more F-22s but for more body armor and boots. Continuing the program "defies common sense," he said, as health-care requirements and other economic needs are more imminent.
The debate crossed party lines and was punctuated by a promise by Obama that he would veto any defense bill that included funds for more than four additional F-22s, which cost an average of $350 million apiece. Vice President Biden, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Gates all lobbied lawmakers to stop the program, prompting Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R.-Ga.) -- the F-22's lead supporter -- to call it one of the most intense White House campaigns he has seen.
After the vote, Obama told reporters in the Rose Garden that he was grateful for the victory, explaining that buying the extra planes would have been "an inexcusable waste of money." In an unusually blunt presidential denunciation of a single weapons program, Obama said "our troops and citizens lose" if more defense dollars go to F-22s.
The Senate's decision came on an amendment to reverse the Armed Services Committee's vote last month to spend an additional $1.75 billion for more planes. The House has already supported putting $369 million toward F-22 parts, but lawmakers said the Senate position will probably prevail when the defense bills are reconciled in a conference committee. If it does, the program will be halted at 187 planes, less than a third of what the Air Force sought at the program's inception.
The chief Senate critics of the F-22 were Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) and the committee's ranking Republican, John McCain (Ariz.). Levin said in a statement after the vote that his colleagues had faced a simple question: "When would we end a weapons program if not now, with the civilian and uniformed leadership of the Pentagon asking us to do so?"
McCain, who has long attacked pork barrel spending for weapons, also said the vote was a bellwether of congressional willingness to abandon "business as usual." The current weapons procurement system, he said in a floor speech Tuesday morning, "is out of control," and he went on to recall President Dwight D. Eisenhower's warning of excessive influence in Washington by the military-industrial complex, suggesting a tweak to call it the "military-industrial-congressional" complex.
F-22 supporters included lawmakers from many of the states where the plane's components are manufactured, such as California, Texas and Georgia. Senators Patty Murray (Wash.), Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) and other Democrats argued that killing the program would undermine the nation's defense by idling highly trained engineers and mechanics.
In all, 14 members of the president's party voted to keep the F-22 production line going, while 14 Republicans joined McCain in voting to shut it down. Senators James Webb (D-Va.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), and Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) supported stopping the program. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) did not vote.