Roxana Tiron of The Hill reported late last week that a group of influential senators, led by Democrat Patty Murray of Washington and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, are pressing Mr. Obama to extend production of the fifth-generation fighter. Raptor production is currently scheduled to end in 2011, after delivery of 183 aircraft to the Air Force:
A group of 44 senators — 25 Democrats and 19 Republicans — sent Obama a letter with the request. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), a defense authorizer who represents a state where Lockheed Martin builds the fighter plane, and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a defense appropriator whose state is home to Boeing’s operations, headlined the letter. Boeing is a subcontractor for the F-22.
“Continued F-22 production is critical to both the national security and economic interests of our country,” Murray said in a statement. “At a time when we are looking to create jobs and stimulate the economy, eliminating the $12 billion in economic activity and thousands of American jobs tied to F-22 production simply doesn’t make sense.”
Under the 2009 Defense Authorization bill, Mr. Obama must decided by 1 March on continuing F-22 production. The Air Force says it needs at least 250 Raptors to maintain air superiority, but senior Pentagon officials, led by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, favor ending F-22 production in favor of the less-expensive, multi-national Joint Strike Fighter or JSF.
Among the Senators who signed the letter are Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts; John Thune of South Dakota and Susan Collins of Maine. The lawmakers note that 70,000 American workers owe their jobs to the F-22 program. That includes employees for Lockheed-Martin and Boeing (the primary contractor and sub-contractor, respectively); Pratt & Whitney (which supplies engines for the Raptor) and almost 1,000 other supplies in 44 states.
Despite the recent show of support, Senators still face an uphill battle in extending F-22 production. Not only is Mr. Gates opposed; the Obama Administation is expected to have its own ideas about defense priorities.
Case in point: a recently-released Congressional Budget Office study, which recommends deep cuts in defense procurement programs. The plan would save an estimated $440 billion over a 16-year period, between 2010 and 2026.
Among its various proposals, the CBO suggests:
- Reducing the number of aircraft carriers from 11 to 10.
- Cancelling the Army Future Combat System (FCS) program in favor of upgrades to existing tanks and armored vehicles.
- Eliminating the Air Force's next-generation tanker (KC-X) and spending part of that money on modifying 50-year-old KC-135s and KC-10s that date from the 1980s.
- Limiting Marine Corps purchases of JSF to the number needed to replace the AV-8B Harrier
- Cutting the Air Force JSF buy in half.
- Delay acquisition of the Navy's next-generation cruiser (CG-X) for a decade.
Reading the study's "Evolutionary Approach" to defense spending, it becomes readily apparent that there's barely room for a down-sized JSF program--and no money for continued Raptor production. In fact, there's no mention of the F-22 in the CBO analysis. You don't have to be a policy wonk to understand the implications of that omission.
The CBO study is also significant because that organization's former director, Peter Orszag, will head the Office of Management and Budget under Barack Obama. In announcing Orszag's appointment last November, Mr. Obama pledged to go through the budget "line by line" to eliminate wasteful spending.
We've heard similar promises in the past, but as OMB Director, Mr. Orszag will be in a powerful position to block funding for additional F-22 production. In fact, some defense insiders believe the CBO study will serve as something of a template for future Obama defense budgets.
Obviously, Congress will have a say in the matter, and the Air Force is clearly encouraged by the Senate letter. But at this stage, the Raptor has few friends at the White House, the OMB, or among the Pentagon's most senior civilian officials. A lot can happen between now and March, but extended F-22 production is still a longshot--at best.
ADDENDUM: Readers will note that the CBO study makes no mention of a compelling reason to buy more Raptors--the global proliferation of "double digit" SAMs, like the SA-20s heading to Iran. By all accounts, the F-22 is the only existing jet that can effectively operate in that sort of air defense environment, but the CBO advocates the purchase of more fourth-generation aircraft (like the F/A-18 Super Hornet) that would be highly vulnerable to advanced SAMs.H/T: The Weekly Standard blog.