This is a big deal: The Senate today voted to halt production of the F-22 stealth fighter plane, and it did so 58-40, a margin much wider than expected.
Not only is this a major victory for Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who lobbied strenuously (something he rarely does) to kill this program, and for President Barack Obama, who pledged to veto the defense bill if it contained a nickel for more F-22s. The vote might also mark the beginning of a new phase in defense politics, a scaling-back of the influence that defense contractors have over budgets and policies.
Then again, I might be dreaming. Surely things couldn't be changing quite that much. Could they?
In any case, the blow against the F-22 is a substantial step. Gates has been publicly inveighing against the fighter for more than a year, calling it a Cold War relic, noting that it hasn't been used in any of the wars we've fought lately, and noting that our current stock—187 F-22s, which have cost $60 billion to develop, build, and maintain to date—is more than adequate to handle the extremely narrow and unlikely range of threats for which they might be suitable in the future.
The Air Force brass wanted $4 billion in the fiscal year 2010 budget to build 20 more F-22s. Gates slashed the request to zero. The Senate Armed Services Committee voted, 13-11, to shift $1.7 billion from other programs in order to fund another seven planes. That's the line item that the full Senate excised this afternoon.
The amendment to halt the plane's production was co-sponsored by Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz. McCain, who has never been an F-22 fan, went so far as to quote at some length President Dwight Eisenhower's farewell address, which warned of the "military-industrial complex," though McCain noted that the proper phrase should be the "military-industrial-congressional complex."
That's really what the F-22 has come to be about. The Air Force shrewdly spread the plane's contracts to firms in 46 states, thus giving a solid majority of senators—and a lot of House members, too—a financial (and, therefore, electoral) stake in the program's survival.
Widening the constituency is a tried-and-true method of keeping dubious weapons systems alive. It dates back to 1960, when the managers of the Army's Nike-Zeus missile-defense program set up subcontractors in 37 states, fearing that the incoming president, John F. Kennedy, would try to kill the system. (Their fear was well-founded; Kennedy and his defense secretary, Robert McNamara, did kill the Nike-Zeus, though the chiefs later pushed through an upgrade.)
The long history of congressional-contractor relations makes today's Senate vote all the more remarkable. The vote was not along party lines: 15 Republicans sided with Obama and Gates to kill the F-22; 15 Democrats (counting Sen. Joe Lieberman, who's an Independent) voted to keep the plane alive.
Rather, it was a vote that reflected corporate contracts. The floor leaders of the faction in favor of more F-22s were Sens. Saxby Chambliss, a Republican from Georgia, where the F-22 is assembled, and Chris Dodd, a Democrat from Connecticut, where parts of the plane are built. Joining this strange couple were such erstwhile doves as Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California, which also hosts several F-22 contractors.
The floor debate was more transparently self-interested than usual. Dodd argued with intense passion that killing the F-22 would create a "dangerous gap" in America's technical know-how. The next advanced fighter jet, the F-35, won't enter production until 2014. The highly skilled workers who make F-22s can't be expected to hang around four years; they'll get different jobs, and they'll be unavailable when the country needs them.
Levin took the floor to point out that production of F-35s actually starts next year and that the FY 2010 budget contains money to build 30 of them. In other words, Levin said, "There is no gap." He wondered where Dodd got his information. Dodd replied that it came from the defense contractors. That's where he probably got the whole speech, too.