Believe it or not, the Bush Administration is run by smart, hard-working people who are committed to protecting the American Dream for future generations. You don’t get a top job on the Bush team unless you are highly qualified, and you don’t seek a top job unless you are highly motivated. So why do public opinion polls indicate that vast swaths of the electorate doubt the administration’s competence or integrity? Well, it’s partly because of Iraq and Katrina, and partly because of the biases harbored by many journalists.
But there is another reason for the administration’s low standing that seldom gets acknowledged among supporters. The Bush Administration doesn’t listen to experts. It thinks it knows better than all those academics what the Iraqi people want, why budget deficits aren’t a problem, and how to deal with global warming. And guess what — a lot of the time, the administration turns out to be right! For example, the economy is doing remarkably well despite continuous attacks on administration economic policies by experts since Bush first took office. Nonetheless, if you think that expert analysis can be ignored in policymaking anytime it doesn’t give you the answers you want, you’re eventually going to make some pretty big mistakes.
There’s a clinical case of that defect unfolding right now in the Pentagon as senior policymakers assemble the administration’s proposed defense budget for fiscal 2009. The Air Force has repeatedly stated that it must buy 381 stealthy F-22 fighters in order to preserve global air dominance to mid-century. That is the number required, after you subtract test, attrition and training aircraft, to equip each of ten expeditionary air wings with a squadron of 24 fighters. Unless each air wing has such a squadron, the Air Force says, it will not be able to sustain rotations in future wars just as the Army today is having trouble sustaining rotations in Iraq. Substituting less capable fighters would make it much harder, maybe impossible, to preserve the air dominance crucial to every other facet of U.S. military success.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England doesn’t agree. He thinks he elicited a commitment from Air Force leaders during deliberations on the quadrennial defense review to terminate the F-22 program at 183 planes, and he intends to hold the service to that commitment. But there’s a more important issue here than who said what two years ago. What, precisely, is the analytical or operational rationale for terminating the F-22 at 183 planes? The world’s pre-eminent repository of air power expertise says it needs 381. Is there some other authoritative source of insight into the right number? It turns out there are three such sources, because three separate studies on the subject were commissioned during the quadrennial review — including one requested by Mr. England himself from the same outfit that provided an earlier plan for streamlining naval aviation.
So what do the studies say? The Pentagon won’t tell us, even though millions of dollars in taxpayers’ money was spent to prepare the studies. And here’s why the Pentagon won’t tell us: each study concluded that 183 F-22s isn’t enough. They all found a requirement for more, with the analysis requested by Mr. England recommending a number somewhere in the 250-aircraft range. In other words, policymakers are once again ignoring expert analysis because it doesn’t match their personal preferences. Perhaps it is time for Congress to see what the experts found, so that it can come to its own conclusion about how many F-22s the nation really needs.
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