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Most of the experts see the cancellation of the F-22 as “small potatoes” or ill-advised. Many see Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ efforts to focus so heavily on the wars at hand (which they also support) as a threat to US security. The focus on Iraq and Afghanistan are a problem not because the wars are ill-advised but because they demand money otherwise directed at what they see as lurking threats from North Korea, Iran, and China. What several of them really seem to mean is that Gates does not propose to spend enough additional money on missile defense and high tech conventional weapons: A spending trajectory for the defense budget at or above the very large annual increases established by the recent Bush administration.
In all, I believe it is a remarkable vision of where US national security policy should be going. It has three parts:
1) Keep on fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,
2) increase, in most cases dramatically, the top line of the defense budget to accommodate spending for the selection of weapons the Pentagon has been pursuing for decades (that are also extremely complex, extraordinarily expensive to buy and operate, unreliable, and poorly tested), and
3) everything else is pretty much OK.
I am clearly very out of step with each element of this thinking. My own view, and that of twelve other retired military officers and Pentagon insiders, is articulated at length in the anthology “America’s Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress.”
The Senate system, political and otherwise, is not designed to stop producing much of anything — let alone weapons — especially in a lousy economy. The 58-40 vote to put the F-22 out of it misery offers a ray of hope that intelligent defense decisions can be made in Congress, even if it takes a massive effort by a determined secretary of defense, the president, and arm twisting by Rahm Emanuel. Perhaps the single individual to credit most for this important success is John McCain. Without him, and even with Gates, the vote would have been purely partisan, supplemented by pork crazed Democrats, such as Murray, Boxer, Feinstein, Byrd, and many others.
Important as it is, the vote should not be misinterpreted as a manifestation of Gates’ “reform” agenda. Put simply, reform is not his agenda; reorientation is. Clearly he wants to focus on fighting the wars at hand, and he is having some real success at that, but only inside the Pentagon. And, reform it is not.
Reform means a change in business as usual. That ain’t happening. Case in point: look at the F-35 program, which Gates is anxious to promote and which some touted as picking up the slack that killing the F-22 left. The F-35 is a classic example of buying a pig in a poke; in fact, we will buy 500 of them before the first definitive (IOT&E) test report lands on Gates desk, and it is a undiluted example of the same kind of design thinking and execution that got the Air Force into trouble with the F-22. Namely, costs so high, performance so compromised, and availability so un- that we get as a result an air force that is smaller, older, and less ready to fight at vastly increased cost.
The recently enacted Weapon System Acquisition Reform Act is another clear example of the non-, even anti-, reform agenda that dominates in Secretary Gates’ Pentagon. Riddled with loopholes and the thinking that the Pentagon should be left alone to fix itself, the original draft bill was given even more loopholes and self-report card writing after Deputy Secretary William Lynn’s interventions.
Both reform and Gates reorientation both have a long way to go to succeed. Despite a post-mortem death wriggle in the form of a CQ article that pretended there was new, but belated, news that the F-35 program is falling apart and therefore the F-22 merits reconsideration, the F-22 is a-goner. (News that the F-35 is having huge cost growth and serious performance problems is very plainly nothing new.) But, Gates’ agenda to focus clearly on fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is still very much under siege in Congress. It’s not just the porkers determination to fund more VH-71 helicopters, C-17s, F-18s, and several billions more in pork. Much more importantly, and with little opposition from Gates, the House and Senate Armed services Committees and the House Appropriations Committee are pressing ahead with their beating up on the most important account in the Pentagon budget as far as the two wars are concerned. Specifically, they all recommend billions in reductions in DOD’s Operation and Maintenance account to pay for the pork they add in the Procurement and R&D accounts. O&M pays for training, weapons maintenance, fuel, and much more of the items basic to any war effort. Congress couldn’t care less; the O&M account (and to a lesser extent the military pay account) is their bill payer for pork. To their credit, Senators Levin and McCain pointed this out when they undid Saxby Chambliss’ revolting raid on these accounts to pay for his extra F-22’s. Very sadly, however, Levin and McCain left in tact other raids on O&M (over a $billion) to help pay for the rest of the pork in their bill. The House Armed Services Committee and the House Appropriations Committee did much the same. The Senate Appropriations Committee will; it just hasn’t reported its bill yet.
Gates has a long way to go in Congress to enforce his effort to take the wars seriously.
As for real reform, the 58-40 vote in the Senate shows that with huge effort some progress can be made. Among the 58 who voted against more F-22s are some potential leaders in Congress against the bad ideas in the defense budget that make us weaker at increasing cost. Based on what I am hearing from some of them, there is a real chance we will see more such actions. The longest journey starts with the first step.
WINSLOW T. WHEELER spent 31 years working on Capitol Hill with senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office, specializing in national security affairs. Currently, he directs the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington. He is author of The Wastrels of Defense and the editor of a new anthology: ‘America’s Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress’.