Chambliss made an even dafter mistake. While arguing that the military needs at least 240 F-22s to maintain its air superiority, he quoted a retired Air Force general as noting that no U.S. soldier has been killed by an enemy aircraft since 1951. Any number of senators must have scratched their heads at that one. If we've been able to ward off air threats so definitively with our current level of technology, why do we need even 187 F-22s, much less 240? And, by the way, are the 1,000 or more F-35s we plan to buy really necessary, either?
Ultimately, Levin-McCain won for two reasons. First, they—along with Obama and Gates—had plenty of cover. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, including the Air Force chief of staff and the secretary of the Air Force, all endorsed the decision that 187 F-22s were enough. (Several other Air Force generals and colonels have been battling on behalf of the plane behind the scenes, but that's another story.) Second—and this is a bit revolutionary, too—their case simply made sense.
In a July 16 speech at the Chicago Economic Club, Gates noted that the budget is "a zero-sum game." Every defense dollar spent "to fund excess or unneeded capacity" is a dollar unspent on what we need. And nobody can really make a good case on why the F-22 is needed.
It is no longer possible, Gates went on,
to design and buy—as we have the last 60 years—only the most technologically advanced versions of weapons to keep up with or stay ahead of another superpower adversary, especially one that imploded nearly a generation ago. … 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 that are then usable only in a narrow range of low-probability scenarios.
That's the F-22 in a nutshell.
The battle, of course, is not over. Last month, the House of Representatives passed a defense bill that includes $369 million to buy advanced parts for 12 more F-22s, to be fully funded in FY 2011. President Obama said at the time that he would veto the bill if it included even this reduced level of funding. It is widely believed that the Senate position will prevail in conference committee.
The debate won't necessarily end there, either. The last time Congress sided with an administration on killing a big-ticket weapon system was in 1977, when President Jimmy Carter halted the B-1 bomber. But, in fact, he didn't. Carter ordered the Air Force to build a new plane that would launch long-range cruise missiles rather than penetrate Soviet air defenses and drop bombs. But the Air Force generals simply put a few cosmetic modifications on the B-1 and called it a new plane. The following year, when the White House budget advisers—who caught on to this trick—briefed Carter on the defense budget, they labeled one chart "Cruise Missile Carrier Aircraft (B-1)." According to one former official who was in the room, Carter, who'd thought the B-1 was really dead, looked at the chart and said, "I must be dreaming."
This sort of flimflammery isn't likely to repeat itself—at least, not now. Gates is more committed to halting the F-22 than Carter's defense secretary, Harold Brown, was to killing the B-1. And the Cold War is over; the B-1 made more sense in 1977 than the F-22 makes in 2009.
Gates has slashed or killed a bevy of outmoded, over-designed, or unnecessary weapons systems in this budget. One or both houses of Congress have gone along with almost all of his swipes. Part of the reason for this compliance is Gates himself, who is almost universally respected; he's known to be a hawk (a centrist hawk, but a hawk all the same), and he's worked for Republicans as well as Democrats. In fact, he is a Republican.
Maybe it takes a Republican defense secretary to usher in a new era of defense politics. Are we in fact on the verge of such an era? There are many reasons to be skeptical (the annals of history among them), but what happened today might be a harbinger of something genuinely new.