Columnist: An important win for wise defense spending

Published 10:29 am Monday, July 27, 2009

The Senate recently passed an important test: When the president, the previous president, their secretaries of defense and their top military commanders all recommend that we end an expensive weapons program, would we have the discipline to do so?
Passing this test was a significant victory for our men and women fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and for the taxpayer. And it signaled an important change in how we do the business of national defense.
The question at hand was the F-22A. It is a highly capable fighter airplane. It is also extraordinarily expensive. The issue isn’t whether the plane is a useful part of our inventory – it is whether we have enough. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended that the program end after 187 planes are built.
Their reasoning was sound. Their analysis showed the planned fleet of F-22s is adequate to deter or defeat any potential enemy. The F-22, built for combat against other fighter planes, is less relevant to current and likely future wars where our enemies use crude roadside bombs and suicide bombers, not sophisticated fighter jets. And money that might buy more F-22s can go to urgent defense needs, particularly the personnel and equipment used in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a letter to the Senate, Secretary Gates and Adm. Mullen made clear the consequences of continuing F-22 production. “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.” Those priorities, they said, included pay and benefits for our troops.
If we could not vote to end a costly weapons program after such clear statements and such powerful arguments from our military leaders, could we ever? Yet there was, of course, opposition. Supporters of the program sought $1.75 billion to build seven more F-22s next year.
The F-22’s supporters also had strongly held opinions. The plane is indeed a marvel of technology, besting any other fighter in the sky, and they argued that more F-22s would make our nation safer. And there is no doubt that ending this program would have a real economic impact, affecting workers in a number of states.
Because of such concerns, the number of successful attempts to cancel unneeded weapons programs is small.
But when Sen. John McCain and I introduced a measure to end the F-22 program, a remarkable thing happened. Fifty-six senators, Democrats and Republicans, joined us. Ultimately, our colleagues recognized that the old way of buying weapons must end. They also recognized the job opportunities presented by the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that will soon enter production and more than replace the jobs involved in the seven F-22s not built.
If the Senate’s position is maintained in conference with the House of Representatives, we will be able to make important investments in weapons, equipment and the readiness of our troops.  Combined with legislation that Sen. McCain and I succeeded in passing earlier this year that targets Pentagon cost overruns, this vote represents important progress in managing our defense dollars and ending wasteful spending.
In voting to end the F-22 program, the Senate sent a strong message. The solid majority on this important, bipartisan vote signals that weapons programs, once begun, will no longer be assumed to continue indefinitely, regardless of whether our armed services need them.  That means better use of our tax dollars and a stronger national defense.

Carl Levin is the senior U.S. senator from Michigan.