Senate must find F-22 compromise for global security

It is essential that the Senate and House conferees for the fiscal 2010 Defense Appropriations Bill include this compromise language in the final conference report. President Barack Obama wants to shut down the F-22 production line, after the Air Force gets only 187 of these fighters. Initially the Air Force, more than two decades ago, had requested 750 of the F-22s. It was supposed to be the long-term replacement for variants of the aging F-15 and F-16. Within the next 10 years, the Air Force projects that its total inventory of fighter aircraft will fall below its stated goal of 2,200.  

Critics of the F-22 say the fighter costs too much compared to the newer fighter, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), and prefer we spend the money on the newer aircraft. However, that aircraft is having production problems of its own. This summer an internal Pentagon oversight board revealed that the JSF program is two years behind schedule and won’t be able to move out of the development phase and into full production until 2016. In the meantime, our Air Force’s aging fleet of fighter aircraft makes us vulnerable to future global threats.

Those who want to scuttle the F-22 on the grounds that it hasn’t been needed in Iraq or Afghanistan are drawing the wrong conclusion. The present war has been focused on the ground threat because the enemy doesn’t have the technical capability to fight us in the air. China and Russia do.

The U.S. has so dominated the air that it’s been more than 50 years since one of our soldiers or Marines on the ground was killed or even wounded by hostile aircraft. In order to ensure that we keep it that way for the next half-century, we must maintain that overwhelming air superiority.

Earlier this year the chief of staff of the Air Force testified that his recommendation to halt production of the F-22s at 187 was based on “budgetary concerns” — not the “strategic military value” of the fighter.  Our top brass have an obligation to testify on what is in the interest of our national defense.

They can leave the budgetary concerns to Congress and the Congressional Budget Office.

It sounds to me like his testimony was influenced by what the administration wanted him to say: namely, to halt production. And that recommendation is in sharp contrast with that of the generals in the field. In a letter earlier this year to Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Gen. John Corley, the current commander of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command, wrote that the “fleet of 187 F-22s puts execution of our current national military strategy at high risk in the near-to-midterm.”  The head of the Air National Guard says he needs the advance fighter to maintain the security of the homeland. The administration notwithstanding, there is widespread support for the F-22s.

Allowing the development of a modified export version will not only keep production lines open, it will provide our allies with a capability that they have been actively seeking to meet their own national security needs. According to an Oct. 14 report by the Congressional Research Service, Japan would prefer to purchase F-22s as the replacement aircraft for their F-4s. In fact, Japan has been asking to buy an export version of our F-22s for years, and the language in the Senate-passed defense appropriations bill could finally allow them to do that. Obviously, sensitive U.S. secrets would not be given away in the modified version.

The beauty of this solution is that our budget, if that really is the administration’s concern, will be protected because allies will pay for the added cost.

Having production lines open is an insurance policy for our own national security if global threats change in the future.

So, while this Senate compromise on the F-22 isn’t getting the same media attention as healthcare, it is potentially just as important to our nation in the long run. While I and many others would prefer to see increased production of the F-22 for our own country’s use, we are willing to at least keep the door open to limited production and allow our allies to purchase a modified export version of the aircraft. This is a commonsense compromise that benefits everyone, including our allies and the American worker. It is also an insurance policy against future threats. To paraphrase former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, we must prepare for the next war, not the last one.

Lamborn is a member of the House Armed Services Committee.