Fighter Fight

Obama administration scores major victory in clash with Congress over F-22 funding.

Overcoming significant opposition on Capitol Hill, the Obama administration in late July won a decisive political victory in a battle over the future of a key Air Force fighter program that could have a significant impact on defense spending in the years to come.

The administration is determined to end production of Lockheed Martin Corp.'s F-22 Raptor jet after the four planes approved in the fiscal 2009 wartime supplemental spending bill roll off the assembly line. Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced in April that a fleet of 187 of the stealthy fighters is adequate to meet current and future threats. Instead of buying more F-22s, Defense officials have indicated they want the service to focus on procurement of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and unmanned aerial vehicles such as the Reaper and Predator drones.

But Congress appeared intent on reversing that decision. Earlier this year, the House passed a fiscal 2010 Defense authorization bill that included $369 million in advanced procurement funding for more F-22s-essentially a down payment for 12 of the fighters in 2011. Meanwhile, the Senate Armed Services Committee's version of the authorization measure, which the panel approved in late June, included $1.75 billion to buy seven fighters next year despite opposition from panel Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz.

But Levin and McCain-with the help of top administration officials who put pressure on lawmakers-ultimately succeeded in stripping the authorization measure of funding for F-22s. The 58-40 vote in favor of the move signaled a major reversal for many lawmakers who had long supported the planes.

President Obama has threatened to veto any bill that includes additional funding for F-22s. That threat "is pretty strong stuff for a small number of planes and for a situation where DoD is being offered money for additional equipment," says Richard Aboulafia, an aircraft analyst and vice president of the Teal Group Corp., an aerospace and defense market research firm. "This has become much less about the aircraft and strategic needs and far more about who is in the driver's seat for the defense budget."

For his part, Gates has shot down any suggestion that the Air Force needs more than 187 Raptors, arguing that the F-22 fleet-when combined with F-35s and UAVs-will be more than adequate to meet current and future threats. "If you're only talking about the F-22, there may be merit to some of these arguments," Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 14. "But the fact is the F-22 is not going to be the only aircraft in the [tactical] air arsenal."

In a significant shift from previous budget battles over the fate of the F-22, the Air Force's leadership-at least within the Pentagon-has supported ending Raptor production. Indeed, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz urged senators to eliminate funding for the planes. The money, they argued, would jeopardize funding for other military programs. "Ultimately, buying more F-22s means doing less of something else, and we did not recommend displacement of these other priorities to fund additional F-22s," they wrote in a July 13 letter.

Despite the Senate victory, the F-22 fight is not yet over. The House and Senate still must resolve their versions of the authorization measure during conference negotiations on the bill.

But House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., who has opposed adding funding for additional F-22s, was expected to work with Levin and McCain to strip the down payment for the planes from the final legislation.

Megan Scully is the defense reporter for CongressDaily.

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