The most advanced warplane in history, the F-22 Raptor, is on Barack Obama's chopping block. Yet the president faces a no-win situation. If somehow he gets Congress to stop paying for more of the stealthy jets – whose full cost is $354 million a plane – thousands of defense workers will quickly lose their jobs in a recession.
As a Democrat more interested in spending money on butter than guns, Mr. Obama does not see guns as butter. His priorities are healthcare, energy, and education. Some Democrats even want a 25 percent cut in defense spending.
But Obama may not win the coming political dogfight with Congress over reducing production of the F-22, which the Air Force sees as its crown jewel in commanding the skies in a conflict. The plane is manufactured by some 1,000 companies in 44 states. That's created a powerful lobby.
But this debate should go beyond the question of where and whether government should create jobs. The military's whole future is wrapped up in the F-22 question and shouldn't be hijacked by short-term interests.
Originally designed to fight Soviet jets, the F-22 is seen by its critics as a relic of a bygone era. Or as Obama put it, the US should not keep "paying for cold war-era weapons systems we don't use."
Not so fast, say F-22 defenders. Yes, the military's tasks in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are not traditional warfare and do reflect a new era of nonstate fighters. But how will the US win a war with, say, China over Taiwan, or with Russia if it again invades a neighbor like Georgia? Who's to say what war might look like in 20 years? And some weapons, like the F-22, may do their job simply by deterrence rather than actual use.
Obama's proposed spending for the Pentagon won't be public until April, when he delivers a full budget to Capitol Hill. But his preliminary budget issued last month warns of "scarce resources" for defense. In inflation-adjusted dollars, he wants only a 2 percent increase for the Pentagon, much less than his overall budget increase.
High-priced weapons, often burdened with cost overruns and technical problems, will receive serious scrutiny. Their usefulness will be weighed against a coming Defense Review that will reflect Obama's ideas on security and potential threats.
Those ideas include using "soft power" to resolve possible conflicts, such as with Iran. (The US has more members of military bands than it does diplomats.) Obama is asking allies to spend more on defense. He may put more money into building up faltering states that may harbor terrorists than, say, the US Navy.
Obama appears to want military spending to fall as a percentage of the economy, perhaps down from 4.2 percent to 3 percent, even as he expands the number of troops.
Such shifts would redefine the US as a superpower. "The categories of warfare are blurring and no longer fit into neat, tidy boxes," Defense Secretary Roberts Gates wrote in a January article. He says "the spigot of defense funding opened by 9/11 is closing."
Congress will need to look beyond the issue of jobs and recession if it is to properly judge Obama's military agenda with the perspective of safeguarding the US – and the world – for an unknown future with unknown enemies.