Just days after he decapitated Air Force senior leadership, Defense Secretary Robert Gates effectively terminated production of the service’s most prized aircraft—the F-22 Raptor. It was a neatly-executed bureaucratic power-play that gave Gates a “win” in two of his most contentious battles with the USAF.
Dr. Gates revealed his F-22 decision earlier today, during his “tour” of three USAF bases that followed last week's firing of the Air Force Secretary and the service's chief of staff. Speaking with reporters, Gates announced that he will defer a final decision on continued F-22 production to the next administration. As Air Force Times reports:
“I made the decision that we would allocate enough money to keep the production line open so the next administration could decide on the balance between buying more F-22s and buying more Joint Strike Fighters,” Gates said. “I felt that was a significant procurement decision that ought not be made in the last six or seven months of the administration.”
At first blush, Dr. Gates’ decision makes eminent sense. At $180 million a copy (or higher, depending on whose estimate you accept), the F-22 is an expensive weapons system, though it offers unmatched capabilities in aerial combat and precision attack. Building more Raptors could mean less money for other programs, including the C-17 airlifter and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. As the stewards of national security for the next four (or eight) years, the incoming administration should take the lead in deciding which aircraft programs will be funded.
Trouble is, we already know what that decision will be. While Barack Obama has two retired Air Force generals as his top advisers, the presumptive Democratic nominee has said little about the service on the campaign trail. In fact, Obama’s only “recent” mention of the USAF was a critique of the KC-X tanker contract, which was tentatively awarded to Northrop-Grumman/EADS earlier this year. Mr. Obama believes that Boeing should have won the contract, since it would mean more jobs for U.S. workers.
Obama’s opponent, John McCain, could hardly be described as a friend of the Air Force. Five years ago, he was among the first lawmakers to demand a probe of the ill-fated tanker lease deal. When the investigation revealed wrong-doing by the service’s top civilian procurement official, Senator McCain used that revelation to torpedo the career of a highly-regarded USAF General, Gregory “Speedy” Martin.
While the general’s involvement in the tanker deal was tertiary (at best), McCain thought it was enough to scuttle Martin’s nomination as commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific. General Martin would have been the first Air Force officer to hold that position, which has been filled by Navy officers for more than a century. Did we mention that McCain’s late father was CINCPAC in the 1970s? At any rate, McCain’s opposition to the tanker deal—and the Martin nomination—cemented his reputation as an Air Force foe.
And, there’s no indication that McCain’s views on the USAF have changed. After the DoD Inspector General released its report on the “Thunder Vision” contracting scandal, McCain and Michigan Senator Carl Levin requested a second probe, focusing on the conduct of senior officials, including the outgoing Chief of Staff, General Mike Moseley. Senators McCain and Levin have shown no willingness to halt the probe, despite the fact Moseley will leave his post in a few weeks.
Bottom line: the Air Force will face tough sledding with the next administration, regardless of who wins the presidential election. In fact, a political analyst delivered that same message last month, during an air power symposium at Langley AFB, Virginia, sponsored by the Air Force Association. According to the analyst, the USAF will face tougher scrutiny and tighter budgets under an Obama or McCain administration. For the Air Force, he said, the short-term political outlook is bleak.
Accordingly, that means no additional money for extended F-22 production under Barack Obama or John McCain. Both candidates have promised to expand ground forces as part of their defense strategy, with programs supporting that goal receiving top priority. In that environment, the USAF may find it easier to get more money for UAVs and C-17s, which provide direct support to Army and Marine Corps units.
By comparison, convincing Congress--and the new administration--to build more Raptors would an extremely difficult (read: impossible) task. As a result, the Raptor assembly line in Marietta, Georgia will almost certainly shut down next year, after production of less than 200 aircraft. At one time, the USAF wanted to build over 600 F-22s, and earlier this year, senior Air Force officials claimed the service needed at least 381 Raptors. With the SecDef’s deferral, that goal is nothing more than a pipe dream.
And that’s just the way Dr. Gates wants it. The Defense Secretary and his top aides have repeatedly emphasized that the F-22 has a marginal role in the Global War on Terror (at best); they believe money earmarked for more Raptors would be better spent on other airframes, including the JSF.
It’s almost certain that the next administration will adopt a similar position on the F-22. Before Gates announcement, some in the Air Force believed they could secure funding for another 30-40 Raptors, enough to outfit at least one more squadron, or increase the number of airframes in existing F-22 units. But, by deferring the production decision to his successor, Mr. Gates has essentially closed the Raptor assembly line, achieving another bureaucratic victory over the USAF.
The SecDef’s decision also creates an interesting dilemma for the next Air Force Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz. As we noted in a previous post, General Schwartz is the first non-fighter pilot nominated for the Chief of Staff position since 1982. Having spent his career in transport and special operations aircraft, General Schwartz has less invested in the F-22 than the “fighter pilot mafia” that has dominated top ranks for more than 25 years.
But as the service’s top uniformed officer, Schwartz must represent the entire Air Force, and that includes making a case for additional F-22s. It will be interesting to see how the gifted, collegial Schwartz presents that argument, knowing that extended Raptor production is now a lost cause.
We’re guessing that General Schwartz has already read the tea leaves. He’ll make a pitch for the F-22 during his confirmation hearings, but it won’t be as forceful or urgent as those offered by General Moseley and his predecessors. Instead, General Schwartz will save his ammunition for programs still facing important production decisions, including the C-17 and the JSF.
As for Dr. Gates, he has literally “schooled” the Air Force in bureaucratic warfare over the past week. Tired of battling senior leaders over various issues, the defense chief simply waited until he had enough ammunition to force a change, then purged Moseley and USAF Secretary Mike Wynne on a quiet Friday morning.
With fallout from that episode still settling, Gates moved quickly on the F-22 issue, making a “non-decision” that will actually spell the end of Raptor production. It was an executive tour-de-force that stunned the Air Force, a service that’s used to getting its way in Pentagon turf wars and budget battles.