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Gates vs. Chambliss (and the Air Force?) on the F-22

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the defense budget, here’s the showdown you’ve been waiting for: Defense Secretary Bob Gates, who er, “completed” the Air Force’s F-22 fighter jet order at 187 planes, versus Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), a staunch advocate for the F-22, which is partially manufactured in his state. Chambliss hinted that he’s got the Air Force’s chief of staff, Gen. Norton Schwartz, on his side — so much for Gates’ warning to the services against budget “guerrilla warfare” — saying that Schwartz “has told me that his military requirement is 243″ and “will testify to that.” Gates, Chambliss continued, doesn’t have the support of the Air Force to only use the F-22 in the Pacific; doesn’t have a clear military analysis to justify 187 planes against the current threat environment; and doesn’t consider that the proliferation of surface-to-air missiles “completely change[s] the air-dominance equation” on which Gates’ presumption that the U.S. needs 187 F-22s is predicated. Oh, and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that Gates prefers as an attack aircraft is also dicey and expensive. Aside from that, Chambliss is in favor of capping the F-22.

Gates didn’t mind throwing his own elbows. The 187 number “was based on input from combatant commanders who are actually going to have” to use the planes in combat, and “discussion with the Air Force leadership.” His budget increases the buys for unmanned aerial vehicles so that neither the F-22 nor the F-35 will be “the only aircraft in the attack air arsenal,” as the “only defense surf-air-missiles is not something that has a pilot in it.” And right now, the United States has 1000 “fifth-generation aircraft” compared to China’s 300, a gap that “gets even bigger” when projecting out to 2025. The idea that a 700-plane lead over China isn’t sufficient air dominance “seems to me to be unrealistic.” Also, the “first training squadron for the F-35 at Elgin Air Force Base” is on track for 2011. Aside from that, Gates thinks Chambliss’ criticisms have merit.

Chambliss is one thing, though, and Schwartz is another. The way Chambliss framed his interactions with the Air Force chief — they’ve been exchanging letters and having private meetings, and Schwartz will testify in the near future on the defense budget — made it sound like Schwartz is unimpressed with Gates’ instruction that “I don’t want to see any guerrilla warfare on these programs.” It’s a thin line between budget subterfuge on the Hill and an honest military assessment for a need for expanding the F-22. Also worth remembering is that Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said last month that the service chiefs and the combatant commanders “uniformly endorsed the termination of the F-22 at the number we all agreed on, the 187 [planes] and the transition to the F-35.” If Chambliss is presenting Schwartz’s position correctly — and Schwartz grudgingly endorsed the cap in an op-ed recently — that doesn’t sound particularly true.

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