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Bob Gates vs. Raptor Jobs Claims: A Chronicle Of Defense Battles Foretold?

Defense reporters these days have a number of anecdotes that they believe reveals Pentagon chief Bob Gates’ true colors. Some like his April 2007 press conference, where he anguished in public about ordering 15-month tours for soldiers in Iraq; between the lines it was clear he really, really didn’t want to do it. Others look to his firing decisions: axing Gen. Peter Pace as Joint Chiefs chairman in June 2007; Adm. Fox Fallon as Central Command chief in March 2008; the Air Force leadership in June 2008. I think mine might have come yesterday in one very tiny section of Gates’ defense budget press conference.

Recall that Lockheed Martin, manufacturer of the F-22 Raptor jet, began portraying the plane as a jobs engine earlier this year. It set up a Website, PreserveRaptorJobs.com, to serve as a public entrance-point for that campaign — Lockheed Martin representative Rob Fuller said it was for providing information to the F-22′s supplier base — complete with a claim that axing the Raptor meant the loss of 95,000 jobs. Not everyone found the claim plausible.

Yesterday, Gates very subtly signaled that he didn’t either. In response to a question from, I think, Yochi Dreazen of The Wall Street Journal, about the economic impact of his program cuts, Gates gave a far different jobs total than Lockheed provided, and was ready with a counterargument:

One of the concerns is particularly with respect to the F-22. Well, employment — direct employment, according to the numbers that are available to us on the F-22, is about 24,000 this year. It’ll decline to 19,000 in ’10 and about 13,000 in FY ’11. The last F-22 rolls off the line toward the end of 2011.

But the joint strike fighter, the F-35, in ’09, already has 38,000 people working in direct employment. It will go to 64,000 in FY ’10 and 82,000 in FY ’11. So — and these decisions on shipbuilding, I think, do a pretty good job — I think — of taking care of the industrial base there and trying to even out things in terms of employment and the workforce.

Why’s this important? It shows that Gates isn’t willing to back down in the face of concerted efforts at stopping his reforms. He didn’t go out of his way to antagonize Lockheed — which, after all, makes the Joint Strike Fighter as well — but he also didn’t acquiesce to the company’s figures or otherwise embrace a consensus-reality. He could have dodged the question, or he could have declined to use the F-22 as an example. Respectfully but firmly, he answered an objection with an argument that on the terms of the one he rejects is more compelling. His answer was a telling mix of substance and politics — and, by extension, character.

Gates is going to have figures like these thrown back at him in the coming weeks when he testifies before Congress on behalf of the budget. Via Rob Farley, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) has wigged out over the budget and pledged to stop it. Tellingly, Inhofe says “President Obama is disarming America,” not “President Bush’s holdover defense secretary is disarming America,” while specifically saying “it’s not Secretary Gates, it’s the White House.” (He also throws in a charming line about Obama disarming America “to support his welfare state,” with all its ugly racial overtones.) But actually, it is Secretary Gates. Not a single Gates aide or Pentagon official has said anything about an ounce of pressure being put on them by the White House to cut these programs. What they say, and say frequently, is that Gates stayed on as defense secretary, to a great degree, in order to cut these programs. That’s why the last question shouted to Gates yesterday at the presser was whether he can leave office now, his mission accomplished. It won’t be until the budget is passed. And Gates demonstrated yesterday he’s not going to shy away from a fight with Inhofe or any other status-quo-oriented member of Congress.

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