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F-22: Battle for the Ages

The F-22 fight is shaping up as a defining event, one that will mark the end of post-Cold War drift and may well shape the future of the US military for a decade. The battle is happening on several levels. Defense Secretary Robert Gates took to the streets of Chicago (where they know how to use bare knuckles...) yesterday afternoon and laid out detailed arguments against the F-22 as well as broader, sweeping arguments for change to the US military that would result in few weapons like the F-22 being built for the foreseeable future.

Gates made his speech against the backdrop of the fight over the Senate amendment to kill $1.75 billion in F-22 funding. The struggle over the amendment, sponsored by Sens. Carl Levin and John McCain, the top two members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is so close that the Project for Government Oversight (POGO) abandoned its efforts to track the votes.

The country faces "iron fiscal realities" and must choose wisely because "our spending and program priorities are increasingly divorced from the very real threats of today and the growing ones of tomorrow."

Gates pressed his argument, saying that the "old paradigm of looking at potential conflict as either regular or irregular war, conventional or unconventional, high end or low – is no longer relevant." That need must drive the military "to prepare for war in a profoundly different way" than we have for most of the last 100 years.

Instead of building the best weapons for a given threat, the US needs "a portfolio of military capabilities with maximum versatility across the widest possible spectrum of conflict."

And then he dived down to take out the F-22's supporters. "The grim reality is that with regard to the budget we have entered a zero-sum game. 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. That is a risk I cannot accept and I will not take," he said.

He and his team looked at the "right mix" of capabilities to counter likely threats. Gates pointed to UAVs "that can simultaneously perform intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance missions as well as deliver precision-guided bombs and missiles." He pointed to the Joint Strike Fighter, which is "10 to 15 years newer than the F-22, carries a much larger suite of weapons, and is superior in a number of areas – most importantly, air-to-ground missions such as destroying sophisticated enemy air defenses." [Our readers will remember that we first reported that F-35 was highly efficient at taking out SAM-300s and their relatives.]

The F-22, by way of contrast, is a "silver bullet" against a very limited range of threats and costs a bundle.

At the next level, Gates is calling senators to convince them to stand with the administration. Sens. Carl Levin and John McCain are reaching out to their colleagues, taking on the arguments of the F-22 supporters point by point.

Then we move to the next level, the largely unseen battles being fought in the capital's subterranean reaches, the halls beneath the Capitol and the windowless rooms of the Old Executive Office Building. We got a brief glimpse at one part of this from a letter to President Obama written by John Wheeler, former Air Force Secretary Mike Wynne's aide.

It begins by noting those tribal relationships that matter most in Washington, that he "proudly supported your election and am a long-time Delaware supporter of the Vice President." A West Point graduate who served in Vietnam, Wheeler notes that he headed the Vietnam War Memorial Fund for a decade. Then he moves rapidly to the main argument, that the country will be ceding air dominance if it does not build more F-22s.

"All pilots of all Services count on the F-22 as the 'King of Battle' that keeps all the smaller fighters, UAV’s, helicopters and transports of all the Services safe in the entire battlespace. The F-22 is a kind of “Killer Shark” toward any enemy missiles, UAV’s and airplanes," Wheeler wrote. Then he moves to the emotional, saying the costs of abandoning air dominance can be read on the wall of the Vietnam War Memorial because "the Navy, Marine and Air Force jet pilots fought a “fair fight” against missiles and enemy fighters" instead of ensuring we were dominant.

How do you feel about this issue?Let your public officials know how you feel.

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