US needs more F-22 fighters than Gates wants, says an Air Force commander

He's at odds with the defense secretary's cap of 187 stealth jets.

Yuriko Nakao/REUTERS
A US Air Force F- 22 Raptor prepares to take off at Kadena US Air Force Base on Japan's southwestern island of Okinawa Tuesday. The aircraft based in Langley, Virginia are being deployed in the region for four months.

A top Air Force general, crossing swords with Pentagon leadership, says a proposed cap on the number of F-22 stealth fighters puts America at "high risk" of compromising military strategy.

In a June 9 letter to a senator, Gen. John Corley, commander of the Air Force's Air Combat Command, wrote: "In my opinion, a fleet of 187 F-22s puts execution of our current national military strategy at high risk in the near to mid term." General Corley's letter, obtained by the Monitor Thursday, came in response to a query from Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) of Georgia, where parts of the F-22 Raptor are built.

The 187 cap is the symbolic centerpiece of Defense Secretary Robert Gates's budget request, which aims to rein in defense procurement costs. He has said it is time to wrap up the program to buy the $140 million-a-copy plane.

The Air Force had long disagreed, calling for as many as 381 planes as recently as last year, in apparent defiance of Mr. Gates. The Defense Secretary fired the Air Force's two top leaders last year, largely over the issue.

The new Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Norton "Norty" Schwartz, is on board with Gates's position, publicly stating his support for ending the program in a newspaper oped in April. "The time has come to move on," General Schwartz and Air Force Secretary Michael Donley wrote.

But General Corley, in his letter, wrote that "there are no studies" yet to justify the figure of 187. Even 250 F-22s would put the nation at "moderate risk," Corley wrote, citing analysis by his command.

The F-22 has been a lightning rod between those who want the Pentagon to spend its money on capabilities it needs now, to fight counterinsurgencies like those in Afghanistan and Iraq, and those who say the US military needs to be prepared for a conflict with a "near peer," such as Russia or China.

Some in Congress agree that 187 is an arbitrary number. Gates has said it finishes the program by having enough planes for six squadrons. Some lawmakers expect that another 20 planes will be added to the defense spending bill.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D) of Hawaii said Thursday that Congress will have the final say about how many F-22 the Pentagon needs.

"[The Pentagon] needs to learn who's in charge, and the Congress is," Mr. Abercrombie, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters here early Thursday.

Gates did not speak about the Corley letter at a Pentagon briefing Thursday. But he seems disinclined to shy away from a fight with Congress, speaking in blunt terms about lawmakers' apparent attempt to continue the F-22 program.
“I would say it’s a big problem,” Gates said. He would not say whether adding more planes to the budget would force a presidential veto of the bill. “I’m not going to go that far at this point,” he said. “I think describing it as a big problem suggests where I am on it.”

Air Force officials, meanwhile, say the service must spend more of its limited resources on remote-control aircraft – used heavily in today's wars – and other equipment and training because of the immediate need for them. In response to the letter from Corley, Schwartz and Air Force Secretary Michael Donley issued a joint statement Thursday that read: "After carefully considering a full range of views and alternatives, including those expressed by Gen. Corley, we recommended to Secretary Gates that other priority Air Force programs should not be reduced in order to fund additional F-22s beyond the program of record."

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