F-22 Victory Is About More Than Just a Plane

It is sometimes easy to overstate the significance of a fight over a particular weapon system. But in this case I think it is fair to say that this is a huge victory for Obama and Gates and is a big step forward toward instituting a strategic shift within the Pentagon.

The Senate resoundingly supported an amendment from Senators Levin and McCain 58-40 to strip funding for the F-22. The margin of the victory is shocking given that just last week, Levin pulled the amendment for fear of not having enough votes. But in the last week, Gates and Obama went for it. Obama stuck his neck out and threatened the first veto of his presidency. Gates lobbied aggressively, highlighting the opportunity costs of keeping the F-22 and tying it to his ability to grow the ground forces by another 22,000.

But this fight was more than just about the F-22. It was also about whether the Pentagon would be able to institutionalize the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan and finally move out of the Cold War strategic mindset that still dominates. Gates has sought to institute a strategic shift within the Pentagon, focusing on developing a more balanced force that is not only capable of fighting conventional wars, but is capable of doing the full spectrum of operations. The military has begun to transition toward this new outlook -- moving out of the mindset that labeled stability operations as "operations other than war" and that has focused on big ticket conventional items.   

Yet Congress has -- and will always have -- a more parochial focus. Where big ticket items are protected at all costs -- whether or not they make strategic sense. Therefore the odds that Congress would go along with Gates and Obama did not look good. The F-22 is an amazing plane, by far the best fighter in the world. It was being built in 46 states and the defense industry was out in full force in the midst of a severe recession fanning fears that 100,000 jobs would be lost if the plane was scrapped.

But the F-22 -- despite being cool -- has little utility. It was designed to fight the next generation of Soviet fighters that were never built and comes at tremendous cost. It has not been used in combat missions in Iraq or Afghanistan, since the plane only has one real function -- fighting other fighters -- something that the cheaper and more versatile F-35, which is being built in large for the Navy, Air Force, and Marines, is more than capable of doing. So the Raptor is expensive, unnecessary, and its roles are duplicated by another more cost-effective aircraft. It is the prime example of a big weapon system that does little to enhance our security. Conservative KT McFarland even said, "The only thing we should do with the F-22 Raptor is rename it -- The White Elephant."

So Obama and Gates drew the line in the sand on the F-22 and told Congress you are either with us in moving in a new strategic direction or you are against us and for business as usual. So what makes this such a big victory is not that Obama and Gates "won" but that they got the Senate -- by killing the F-22 -- to back their strategic shift centered on building a more balanced force.