WASHINGTON – The Senate voted Tuesday to halt production of the Air Force’s missile-eluding F-22 Raptor fighter jets in a high-stakes showdown over President Barack Obama‘s efforts to shift defense spending to a new generation of smaller F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.
The 58-40 vote reflected an all-out lobbying campaign by the administration, which had to overcome resistance from lawmakers confronted with the potential losses of defense-related jobs if the F-22 program was terminated.
“The president really needed to win this vote,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said. Levin said it was important not only on the merits of the planes but “in terms of changing the way we do business in Washington.”
The top Republican on the committee, John McCain of Arizona, agreed that it was “a signal that we are not going to continue to build weapons systems with cost overruns which outlive their requirements for defending this nation.”
Supporters of the program cited both the importance of the F-22 to U.S. security interests — pointing out that China and Russia are developing planes that can compete with it — and a need to protect aerospace jobs in a bad economy.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other Pentagon officials have determined that production of the F-22, which has not been used in Iraq and Afghanistan, should be stopped at 187 planes in order to focus on the F-35, which would also be available to the Navy and Marine Corps.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, countered that the F-35 is designed to supplement, not replace, the F-22, “the “NASCAR racer of this air dominance team.” Supporters of the F-22 have put the number needed at anywhere from 250 to 380.
The defense bill has funds to build 30 F-35s. The plane is currently being produced in small numbers for testing purposes. The single-engine plane will eventually replace the venerable F-16 and the Air Force’s aging fleet of A-10s. Its primary purpose is to attack targets on the ground.
The twin-engine F-22 Raptor is a jet the Air Force would use for air-to-air combat missions.
McCain said the voting margin of victory was “directly attributable” to Obama, his opponent in the last presidential election, and Gates, who has pushed for termination of the F-22 and other weapons systems he says have outlived their usefulness.
The vote removed $1.75 billion set aside in a $680 billion defense policy bill to build seven more F-22 Raptors, adding to the 187 stealth technology fighters already built or being built.
The Senate action also saved Obama from what could have been a political embarrassment. He had urged the Senate to strip out the money and threatened what would have been the first veto of his presidency if the F-22 money remained.
Immediately after the vote, Obama told reporters at the White House the Senate’s decision would “better protect our troops.”
White House officials said Vice President Joe Biden and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel lobbied senators, as did Gates.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Tuesday that spending on the stealth fighter would “inhibit our ability to buy things we do need,” including Gates’ proposal to add 22,000 soldiers to the Army.
“I’ve never seen the White House lobby like they’ve lobbied on this issue,” said Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, an F-22 supporter whose state would be hit hard by a production shutdown.
According to Lockheed Martin Corp., the main contractor for both planes, 25,000 people are directly employed in building the F-22, and an additional 70,000 have indirect links, particularly in Georgia, Texas and California.
Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., a strong backer of the program, said his state stood to lose 2,000 to 4,000 jobs if F-22 production ended.
Levin suggested that some workers might be shifted to F-35 production. “We have to find places for people who are losing their jobs,” he said.
The House last month approved its version of the defense bill with a $369 million down payment for 12 additional F-22 fighters. The House Appropriations Committee last week endorsed that spending in drawing up its Pentagon budget for next year. It also approved $534 million for an alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, another program that Obama, backed by the Pentagon, says is unwarranted and would subject the entire bill to a veto.
The defense bill authorizes $550 billion for defense programs and $130 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and for other anti-terrorist operations.
The defense bill is S. 1390.