Friday, June 26, 2009

Obama Gets it Half-Right

In describing the federal budget process, the late Senator Everett Dirksen famously observed, "A billion here, a billion there, eventually you're talking about real money."

So, with President Obama spending and taxing trillions on everything from the economic stimulus to cap and trade, it's surprising to hear he might veto the latest defense bill over a paltry $972 million.

According to ABC News White House Correspondent Jake Tapper, Mr. Obama is threatening to do just that, because the measure contains funding for the F-22 stealth fighter and an alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).

Specifically, President Obama opposes the inclusion of $369 million in the bill for more F-22 fighter jets and $603 million for development and procurement of the alternative engine program for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program.

If the final bill presented to the president contains either of those provision, a White House statement released Wednesday threatened, "the president's senior advisers would recommend a veto."


The White House also expressed objections to other provisions in the bill restricting aircraft retirements and limiting U.S. engagements with NATO and European allies regarding missile defense programs, as well as other provisions, but none of them were objectionable enough to merit a veto threat.

As we noted last week, Congressional supporters of the F-22 are vigorously fighting efforts to cap production at 187 jets. By a narrow margin, the House Armed Services Committee recently appropriated additional money for the Raptor, funds that will purchase parts and keep the assembly line open until Congress can (presumably) find money for additional aircraft.

But the administration has other ideas. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has long opposed the Raptor, believing the aircraft has little use in low-intensity conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan. Budget czar Peter Orszag is also against the F-22, but for different reasons. Dating back to his days as Director of the Congressional Budget Office, Dr. Orszag has favored draconian cuts in Pentagon procurement programs, with the Raptor at the top of that list.

Still, that position ignores a few inconvenient truths about U.S. military policy and the F-22. First, U.S. military strategy is predicated on air supremacy; existing fighters like the F-15 and F-16 are getting long in the tooth, and their qualitative advantage is slipping. The Raptor is supposed to widen that gap, but if production ends at less than 200 aircraft, the USAF will only have enough aircraft to deploy 4-5 squadrons, given projected training requirements, maintenance and potential attrition. That's a rather slim margin for such scenarios as a China-Taiwan conflict.

Still, if Mr. Obama is wrong about the Raptor, he deserves credit for trying to kill the F-35 "alternative" engine effort. We've written about the program at length; it's nothing but pure defense pork, aimed at funneling more money to General Electric, which builds the engine.

To date, members of Congress have funded the alternate engine program to the tune of $1.6 billion. Never mind that its rival power plant (from Pratt & Whitney) has consistently outperformed the GE product. Or that the Air Force has stressed that F-35 doesn't need an alternate engine. Or that producing another jet engine will actually make the JSF more expensive.

As you might expect, the alternative engine has some high-powered sponsors, including Ted Kennedy. Before his recent health crisis, the Massachusetts Senator inserted multiple earmarks to support the GE engine, the most recent totaled $100 million. Kennedy based his support on the company's supposed plans to build the jet engine in his home state. But, as air power analyst Loren Thompson observed almost two years ago, GE has never confirmed Senator Kennedy's claims and actually has a 50-year history of shuttering engine plants in New England.

Given Mr. Kennedy's staunch support for the alternate engine, it's a bit surprising that the White House would use that program as grounds for vetoing the defense bill. Perhaps the administration believes its support for national health care--Senator Kennedy's pet program--will trump opposition to the GE engine. There's also a chance the White House is simply bluffing, or won't fight Congressional attempts to override the veto.

Whatever his reasoning, President Obama's opposition to the alternative engine program is completely justified. Now, if he'd only show similar conviction on more pressing matters, like North Korea and Iran.

1 comment:

herb said...

"A billion here..." was Everett McKinley Dirksen