The House of Representatives is now deliberating over whether to appropriate money to build additional F-22s beyond the 187 already funded. The Senate recently rejected a similar measure. President Obama has pledged to veto any defense spending bill that provides for additional F-22 aircraft, and the White House this week reiterated its veto threat.
The debate has taken on an outsized symbolic importance that far exceeds the $1.75 billion involved. Liberal critics of defense spending see Gates and Obama as bravely trying to break the supposed stranglehold of greedy defense contractors and parochial politicians.
For conservative supporters of a robust national defense, the congressional attempt to build more F-22 fighter jets is a much-needed and long-delayed pushback against ill-advised weapon systems cuts by Secretary Gates and President Obama.
This is one debate where both sides are right. Congressmen and Senators want more F-22s not because they have seriously grappled with the defense budget, but as a reprehensible act of pork-barreling. Why else would liberal Democrats like Senators Edward M. Kennedy and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut support more money for the F-22?
It also happens that there is a serious and substantive case to be made for procuring additional F-22s. The Air Force has made clear that it accepts the current 187 plane limit only because of budget constraints. Since Gates and Obama have capped the defense budget to support greater domestic social-welfare spending, the Department of Defense must make difficult funding choices.
But why has the defense budget been artificially capped? Why is spending on weapon systems being cut even as the rest of the federal budget is ballooning? How come, last spring, lawmakers weren’t decrying this constrained defense austerity budget? Why did they acquiesce in a defense budget top-line number that is inadequate, and which promises, over time, to reduce defense spending to an historic low as a percentage of gross domestic product?
The answer: because our lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans alike, really aren’t much interested in the defense budget or in U.S. military requirements. That’s why their howls of outrage over the F-22 now ring hollow. And that’s why it is difficult for Iraq War veterans such as myself to get much exercised about this latest pseudo-controversy.
As a former Marine, I see a defense budget that for decades has been badly biased against the ground forces who do the actual fighting and dying in modern-day conflicts. Indeed, as the commander of the Joint Forces Command, Marine Corps General James N. Mattis has observed, 89% of U.S. military casualties since 1945 have been suffered by infantry units.
Yet, as the former commandant of the Army War College, Major General Robert Scales has noted, since the early 1990s, some 70% of the American defense investment, or more than $1.3 trillion, has been earmarked for missiles and fixed-wing aircraft.
The F-22 has not been used in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Yet, instead of arguing over truly deleterious defense cuts like Gates’ cancelation of the Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS) vehicles, some in Washington are in a tizzy over an aircraft that may have utility in a distant, hypothetical and, in my judgment, highly unlikely, future conflict with China. By contrast, if the FCS vehicles were built and now available, the Army would send them immediately to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I’d have more sympathy for the F-22 advocates if ever they voiced even minimal support for ground-force modernization for the Army and the Marine Corps, and for the grunts on the ground.