UPDATE: An amendment to strip F-22 funding from the defense spending bill is heading for a vote today (Tuesday). The measure is sponsored by Michigan Democrat Carl Levin (Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee) and Arizona Republican John McCain. Once again, Senator McCain is proving that he is no friend of the Air Force.
If you're wondering how much sway Barack Obama has over members of his own party, keep an eye on Congress. There's a real budgetary donnybrook shaping up, and we're not talking about the President's health care plan, either.
Instead, we refer to recent actions involving the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter and an alternate engine program for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). Last week, supporters of both efforts drew budgetary lines in the sand, defying a veto threat by Mr. Obama.
In a mark-up of the Fiscal Year 2010 military spending bill, the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee (chaired by none other than John Murtha) added $369 million for additional F-22 production and $560 million more for development of another engine for the F-35. President Obama has threatened to veto the bill if Congress provides more funding for either program.
But the defiance didn't end there. Mr. Murtha's subcommittee added an extra $400 million to the administration's request to salvage five aircraft from the now-cancelled V-71 helicopter program. The money will be used to make at least five of the choppers operational. Originally, the VH-71 was supposed to be the new presidential helicopter, but the program was cancelled after costs skyrocketed, making the choppers more expensive than the Boeing 747's now used as Air Force One.
As Mr. Murtha explained to Aviation Week:
“We think that will take care of five to seven helicopters,” Murtha said, adding, “you just can’t cancel programs and get nothing for it.” Murtha conceded, however, that the money in the subcommittee bill might not be enough to field that many helicopters.
He also believes that Congress can strike some sort of deal with the White House, and avoid the promised veto. “It won’t come to that,” Murtha said. “We will work it out. We want to work with [the Obama administration].”
The question, of course, is whether President Obama wants a fight with influential members of his party. While the commander-in-chief and his defense secretary, Robert Gates, want to terminate the F-22 program, the fifth-generation fighter enjoys strong support among key Democrats, including Washington Senator Patty Murray (did we mention that Boeing is a primary sub-contractor for the Raptor), and Chris Dodd of Connecticut, where the Raptor's engines are built by Pratt and Whitney.
As for the alternate JSF engine, that has long been the pet defense earmark of Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. By some estimates, Mr. Kennedy has added up to $1 billion in defense earmarks for the General Electric product, which the Pentagon says it doesn't need.
Even the bloated VH-71 program has friends in high places. Lockheed Martin planned to build the chopper (under an agreement with its British and Italian developers) at a plant in New York. The state's senior Senator, Charles Schumer, has long been a backer of the program, along with the rest of the New York congressional delegation. They support House efforts to pour more money into the VH-71, in hopes of getting a few operational aircraft.
In ordinary times, Mr. Obama could easily veto the proposed defense bill, with little concern for the consequences. But with his national health care plan already in trouble, the president will need every vote he can muster in hopes of passage. That means avoiding unnecessary fights with senior members of his own party, folks like John Murtha and Ted Kennedy who have defense priorities that don't match those of the White House.
Against that backdrop, the F-22, the JSF alternate engine and even the VH-71 may survive. Unfortunately, the engine project and the helicopter program deserve a presidential veto; they represent defense pork at its worst and both should have been cancelled long ago.
However, the Raptor is worthy of continuation. If the U.S. wants the assured air dominance into the middle of this century, then we need more F-22s, pure and simple. Regrettably, getting those aircraft (apparently) means defiance of Mr. Obama's veto threat, and millions more for defense programs we don't need. That's how "things get done" in Washington.