Defense Secretary Robert Gates says it's time for Congress, the defense industry, and even parts of his own Pentagon to end the way they've done business for decades – and start by completing the controversial F-22 Raptor stealth fighter program.
"Every defense dollar diverted to fund excess or unneeded capacity – whether for more F-22s or anything else – is a dollar that will be unavailable to take care of our people, to win the wars we are in, to deter potential adversaries, and to improve capabilities in areas where America is underinvested and potentially vulnerable," he said in a speech to the Economic Club of Chicago Thursday.
Mr. Gates – with President Obama at his back – has taken a hard line on the F-22 program as a symbol of reckless defense spending. He has also hatcheted other programs, such as a presidential helicopter with a galley for cooking during nuclear attack, in his bid to reform a Pentagon and defense industrial complex intent on the status quo.
The stealth fighter has been billed as the crown jewel of American air superiority in an air-to-air fight with a "near peer" enemy such as China.
But to Gates, the plane fills a highly specialized niche the Pentagon cannot afford to buy more of, and he wants to cap the program at 187 planes.
Congress has other ideas, and both the House and Senate are attempting to amend the $534 billion budget to include $1.7 billion in funding to build seven more planes. The Senate is debating the issue this week, but on Wednesday senators set aside a vote on the amendment adding the additional funding.
Mr. Obama says he will veto the bill, crossing swords with members of his own party in whose states components of the plane are assembled, including Sens. John Kerry and Ted Kennedy, both Democrats from Massachusetts.
Most experts believe that the issue is not over seven planes – which can cost as much as $350 million a piece – but keeping the production lines open in more than 40 states to allow the program to continue indefinitely. One estimate suggests that ending the program will cost 95,000 jobs nationwide and leave the Pentagon with too few planes.
"When you just barely have enough to fly, you don't have enough to sustain," says one Senate staffer familiar with the issue who isn't authorized to speak publicly.
But with Gates, a Republican who has served several presidents, Obama has a forceful fighter intent on reform.
Since Gates arrived at the Pentagon in late 2006, he has been troubled by its characteristic inefficiencies as he attempted to obtain more bomb-resistant trucks for the war in Iraq, for example.
"The most flamboyant example" of defense spending run amok is the presidential helicopter fleet, Gates said. The House has moved to reinstate money for this program, too.
Gates noted that he has always had a reputation as a hawk. One criticism he has received over the years, he said, has been that he has "overestimated threats" to US security. But he said he didn't "molt into a dove" just because he signed on to work for a Democratic president.
"I continue to believe, as I always have, that the world is, and always will be, a dangerous and hostile place for my country with many who would do America harm and who hate everything we are and stand for," he said. "But the nature of the threats to us has changed. And so too should the way our military is organized, and equipped to meet them."
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