In darkened theaters around the country this week, millions
of Americans have been getting a civics lesson. In a somewhat
romanticized and selective rendering of "Charlie Wilson's War," they are
seeing how a colorful Congressman managed to work behind closed doors to
fund a project - arming Afghans fighting Soviet invaders - with
momentous consequences, both intended and unintended.
Today, decisions that may be equally momentous are again
being made behind closed doors in official Washington. Many of these
are being driven by a single man, Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon
England, with a zeal worthy of Charlie Wilson at his prime, if little of
The Pentagon's Number 2 has traditionally run "the
Building," managing its vast bureaucracy and effectively being the
ultimate allocator of funds among its competing programs and
responsibilities. England currently has the unenviable task of playing
such a role at a time when defense funding is substantially larger in
real terms than it has been over much of the past few decades yet -
thanks to extensive, and expensive, world-wide combat and combat-support
operations around the world - woefully inadequate to meet the military's
Matters have been made worse by the fact that neither this
nor previous administrations have invested the huge sums required fully
to modernize the Army and Marine Corps' armored forces, the Navy's
fleets and all three services' air arms. To varying degrees,
recapitalization programs have been pursued, but most have been delayed,
dramatically reduced in size and, in some cases, simply canceled
The result has been to leave the armed forces fighting
today's wars with yesterday's weapons. While many have been improved
and their useful lives extended with more contemporary technology, our
troops are handicapped - and exposed unnecessarily to peril - because
they are operating outdated and even obsolescing equipment.
To some extent, this travesty is being obscured by the
nature of today's wars. Counterinsurgency operations place a premium on
different weaponry and tactics than would conflicts with what are now
euphemistically called "peer" or "near-peer" competitors. In this
instance, however, it is not the generals who are guilty of being
blinded by thoughts of "fighting the last war."
In fact, most in uniform appreciate that countries like Russia and China
are demonstrating a determination to field militaries comparable to and
capable of inflicting great harm on the best of our armed forces.
Worse, they are both proliferating advanced weapon systems designed for
that purpose to others who wish us ill, from the mullahs in Iran to Kim
Jong-Il's North Korea to Hugo Chavez's Venezuela.
The best way to contend with these and other emerging threats is to
dissuade such adversaries from believing that conflict with the United
States could ever redound to their benefit. Toward that end, this
country should field wherever possible decisively superior military
equipment. A case in point is the Air Force's F-22 Raptor.
This plane is quite simply the best fighter aircraft in the world.
Thanks to a combination of "stealthy" characteristics that make it very
difficult to detect and target, the ability to operate for sustained
periods at supersonic speeds and its extraordinary agility, the Raptor
seems likely to secure for years to come something Americans have taken
for granted in every conflict since World War II: air superiority
essential to victory on the ground. In operational testing and
deployments to date, the "Fifth Generation" F-22 has demonstrated the
ability to defeat the best adversary aircraft and most sophisticated air
defenses of the kind Russia has just agreed to sell Iran.
Yet, in Gordon England's Pentagon, the Raptor is an endangered species.
Where Charlie Wilson labored in secret to secure funds to provide more
and better arms to the Afghans, the "DepSecDef" is adamantly insisting
in the closed-door budget deliberations over which he presides that
production of the world's best fighter be terminated next year.
Fortunately, many of Charlie Wilson's successors on Capitol Hill have
begun to engage on the question of whether to keep open the production
line for the F-22. A bipartisan group involving some 200 members of the
House and Senate representing nearly every political stripe wrote
England's boss, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, last month urging that
the Raptor line be kept open.
The necessity for such a course of action is all the clearer in the wake
of an ominous discovery concerning the U.S. inventory of existing
front-line air-superiority aircraft: Every one of the nation's 440
F-15Ds have been grounded in recent weeks after one of these twenty-five
year-old planes broke up in flight and the subsequent discovery of
potentially lethal cracks in at least eight more.
It seems obvious that the momentous decision of whether to terminate
the F-22 at just 180 aircraft - one that could prove fateful in
deterring a future conflict with increasingly hostile and aggressive
adversaries - should be made not by a lame-duck presidency, but a newly
mandated one. As a practical matter, this will require Gordon England to
stop waging war against the F-22, allowing more than $500 million now
earmarked for termination costs to be applied instead to long-lead
procurement of one more block of twenty Raptors and permitting the Air
Force to budget the substantially larger sums required in Fiscal Year
2010 fully to fund them.
Ultimately, the decision as to whether America will be able to deter
future conflicts, and to wage them successfully if deterrence fails,
will depend on a comprehensive recapitalization of every one of the
armed services. The Joint Chiefs of Staff are calling for a sustained
allocation of more resources - specifically, at least 4% of Gross
Domestic Product. Now is the time to determine whether the candidates
to be our next Commander-in-Chief will pledge to do so.