The 58-40 Senate vote last week to stop production of more F-22 fighter planes was a welcome bit of sanity applied to Pentagon spending. Whether it will lead to less wasteful Pentagon procurement policies in the future or go down as simply a symbolic gesture is a more complicated question.
The F-22 was developed in the 1980s, when most people assumed the U.S. standoff with the Soviet Union would continue indefinitely. By all accounts it is a superior air-to-air combat plane that also has some bombing capability. However, there is now no other country in the world against which it can be used effectively. The F-22 has not been used at all in Iraq or Afghanistan.
And yet, due to the pork-barrel game that military procurement has become, the F-22 survived the efforts of several secretaries of defense to kill it. Previous Air Force leaders shrewdly spread subcontracts for the plane among 46 states. To override many of those parochial interests, it has taken almost a year of active lobbying by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, plus a threat from President Barack Obama to veto any defense spending bill that included money for more F-22s.
The Senate vote does not ensure the House members will vote for this common-sense elimination of funds to continue the F-22 program. The House version includes $369 million for advanced F-22 parts. But we hope the House would eventually offer similar support and send a united signal from Congress that future Pentagon procurements must fulfill the actual defense needs of the United States and not just create the maximum number of jobs and keep building needlessly complex weapons systems.
As Secretary Gates said in a speech last week, “We must break the old habit of adding layer upon layer of cost, complexity and delay to systems that are so expensive and so elaborate that only a small number can be built, and that are even usable only in a narrow range of low-probability scenarios.”
Unfortunately, more thoroughgoing reform still appears unlikely. Ivan Eland, who before becoming director of the Independent Institute’s Center for Peace and Liberty was a military budget analyst for congressional committees, said of the Senate vote: “This is a positive development but I really don’t see it spreading to other weapons systems.” More to the point, as with the F-22, most weapons systems involve subcontractors in as many states and congressional districts as possible to widen political support, no matter whether the weapon’s need or usefulness in today’s warfighting.
The ending of the F-22 program is a necessity and a small step toward fiscal responsibility by the federal government. It took President Barack Obama’s administrative clout to end this congressional protectionism. While a president can’t make a campaign out of every wasteful weapons system it was important that he and his military leaders took the first step toward restoring common sense to big-dollar decision-making by the top brass.
Whether this is a precursor of more widespread Pentagon procurement reforms to come, well, color us skeptical.