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 his panache.
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 recapitalization requirements.
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 outright.
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contemporary technology, our troops are handicapped – and exposed unnecessarily to peril – because they are operating outdated and even obsolescing equipment.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.