Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated on April 6 that the Air Force advised him they wanted 187 F-22s, the reaction was shock. That’s because evidence indicates the Air Force was ready and willing to cap off production after buying a total of 243 F-22s, not 187. Do the simple math: just 187 F-22s to replace 522 F-15s now in the total inventory is not enough in a crisis. A total buy of 243 F-22s is the minimum to fill out ten F-22 squadrons for overseas missions and homeland defense.
What happened to the 243 number? Is the Obama Pentagon clamping down on the Services? Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen confirmed in December 2008 that he and Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz were discussing 60 more, or 243 total F-22s. On April 7, a reporter said to Gates: “As recently as a few weeks ago, Air Force leadership was still publicly saying 260, 265. When did that change for them?” Here is Gates’ verbatim reply: “Well, you’ll have to ask them. (Chuckles.)”
Recall how things work in normal times. The Pentagon budget is a $500 billion behemoth that relies on a formal process derived from the checks and balances in the Constitution. The Services submit their budgets. The Office of the Secretary of Defense makes adjustments, then sends the budget to the President, who sends it to Congress. Key committees call generals, admirals and civilian officials to hearings where they swear under oath to give Congress their undiluted opinions.
Here’s the dog that didn’t bark in the night. Last summer, Schwartz said in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee that he believed 381 F-22s were too many but 183 were too few. He promised to “delve deeply” into the analysis and return with a new number. Schwartz had numerous opportunities to call a halt to the F-22 at 183 aircraft. He did not. Going forward, Congress appropriated partial money for the next 20 F-22s based on the long-standing requirement for the F-22 to replace F-15s. Outgoing Bush Administration officials threw in procedural delays to prevent the Lockheed Martin – Boeing – Pratt & Whitney team from getting to work.
Then came the election. Many applauded President Obama’s decision to retain Bush’s Secretary of Defense to ensure wartime continuity. What few bargained for was that the first three months of the Obama presidency would give Gates a chance to craft what Senator Carl Levin has called a “novel” approach to the defense budget. Gates kept Bush-Rumsfeld holdovers in crucial program analysis posts and formed a small team to cut the budget in secret, a technique he mastered as CIA director. Next, in February 2009, Gates did what no previous Secretary of Defense had done. He directed top uniformed officers to sign non-disclosure agreements pledging not to talk about the budget process – even to other senior officers in their services. Can you picture even a famous budget cutter like Caspar Weinberger or an experienced legislator like William Cohen making a demand like that?
Schwartz never had a chance to present his analysis for 243 F-22s to Congress as promised. To speak up given Gates’ new restrictions might risk the tradition of civilian control begun by George Washington. Air Combat Command, whose airmen fly and maintain F-22s and other fighters, is left to pick up the pieces after this shattering break in faith. Is this what change in Washington means?
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