Fighting Over Fighter Jets: Obama, Gates and the F-22

The Senate is locked in a heated debate on the future of the F-22, the Air Force's 5th generation fighter plane. It is the most advanced air-to-air combat fighter plane in the world, and at $350 million per plane, it is also the most expensive. President Obama is threatening a veto if any additional F-22s wind up in the Defense Authorization bill, leaving both sides of the issue locked in hand-to-hand combat trying to eek out the necessary votes. This has become an entirely politicized debate when what we need is thoughtful analysis based on risk assessment and the overall best interest of U.S. national security.

The Defense Department feels strongly that it is time to end production of the F-22. According to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, "The Department of Defense has determined that 187 aircraft are sufficient, especially considering the future roles of Unmanned Aerial Systems and the significant number of 5th generation stealth F-35s coming on-line in our combat portfolio". Michael B. Donley, the Secretary of the Air Force and Norton A. Schwartz, Chief of Staff of the Air Force recommend that, "the Air Force not pursue F-22 production beyond 187 aircraft" after having "reviewed this issues from multiple perspectives" including "emerging joint war-fighting requirements... and overall tactical aircraft force structure."

Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not lining up to support continued production of the F-22, especially since the F-22 has never flown in either war. According to Jon Soltz, Iraq War Veteran and Chairman of, "The funding for these F-22s is wasteful and takes money away from equipment we do need, plain and simple...The question for lawmakers is this -- do you value contractors more, or our troops more? Because that's what they're voting on."

Of course, principle manufacturer of the plane Lockheed Martin and its subcontractors have been active on the debate and contributed $780,000 to individual Senators or their Political Action Committees since the beginning of the year. The manufacturers' primary argument is the need to maintain jobs. Secretary Gates estimates that F-22 production yields roughly 24,000 jobs. Compared to the $65 billion the U.S. taxpayer has spent to date on this program, it can hardly be touted as a cost effective jobs creation program. The F-35 program, also administered by Lockheed Martin, currently employs 38,000 people. According to Secretary Gates, more than doubling F-35 production in FY2010 will mean adding 44,000 American jobs next year, bringing the total F-35 workforce to 82,000. The planned ramp-up of F-35 production will more than offset job losses due to ending production of the F-22.

This is not a partisan issue. The charge to end production of the F-22 is being led by Senators Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ). But both parties like to support any and all defense programs to tout their bona fides on national defense. Stymieing the Defense Department's efforts to better align its budget with today's actual security threats is counter productive. According to Secretary Gates, "If the Air Force is forced to buy additional F-22s beyond what has been requested, it will come at the expense of other Air Force and Department of Defense priorities -- and require deferring capabilities in areas we believe are much more critical for our Nation's defense."

The Senate needs to heed the advice of our civilian and uniformed leaders in the Defense Department and end production of the F-22. Since Gates has drawn a red line on this, if the Senate overrules him, it will be hard for him to be an effective Secretary of Defense during the rest of his tenure.

Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, served as assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration. Krisila Benson is the Director of Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities.