U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss phoned home from Rome on Monday.
After a multi-nation, Middle East-oriented tour of Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Afghanistan, the Georgia senator is ready to get down to some real turmoil.
When he arrives in D.C. on Wednesday, Chambliss wants a word with Michael Donley, secretary of the U.S. Air Force. Before Chambliss left town last week, the senior senator from Georgia was under the impression that Donley wanted more — not fewer Marietta-produced F-22s.
But in Chambliss’ absence, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who like Donley is a Bush holdover, announced that Donley had changed his mind. This morning, as co-author of a Washington Post op-ed piece, the secretary of the Air Force agreed.
Based on different war-fighting assumptions, the Air Force previously drew a different conclusion: that 381 aircraft would be required for a low-risk force of F-22s. We revisited this conclusion after arriving in office last summer and concluded that 243 aircraft would be a moderate-risk force. Since then, additional factors have arisen.
First, based on war-fighting experience over the past several years and judgments about future threats, the Defense Department is revisiting the scenarios on which the Air Force based its assessment. Second, purchasing an additional 60 aircraft to get to a total number of 243 would create an unfunded $13 billion bill just as defense budgets are becoming more constrained.
This decision has increasingly become a zero-sum game. Within a fixed Air Force and overall Defense Department budget, our challenge is to decide among many competing needs. Buying more F-22s means doing less of something else.
Said Chambliss in his conference call with reporters:
“The secretary of the Air Force — both in private conversations with me as we went through his confirmation process, as well as subsequent conversations I’ve had with him — has been strongly supportive of purchasing additional F-22s. And not only in private conversations, but publicly. There have been a number of news accounts as late as 30 to 60 days ago.
“The number was always in question, but he’s been very adamant about the fact that we need additional F-22s. So what’s changed in the last 60 days, from a policy standpoint or from a tactical standpoint? It’s pretty obvious that nothing has changed from a tactical standpoint. This is all policy, and it’s all budget-driven.
And it just very appalling to me that the secretary of the Air Force would now come forward and say, ‘I’ve changed my mind because things have changed on the ground in the last 60 days.’ I just don’t buy that. He’s had every opportunity to come to me and say, ‘Look, this thing is moving and here’s why.’ And he hasn’t done that.’”
Other than the F-22, Iran and its nuclear ambitions were on Chambliss’ mind, which he called the No. 1 issue with every Middle East leader he spoke to.
One of them was Benjamin Netanyahu, the new prime minister of Israel. Two weeks ago, in the Atlantic Monthly, Netanyahu was quoted as saying that if the U.S. didn’t stop Iran’s nuclear program, Israel might.
“We in fact brought that up to him. He said the content that he made was not exactly as reported in that article. And the headline is pretty disturbing. Here’s basically what he says: He says Israel can’t afford to have Iran be nuclear-weaponized. Does he have the ability to carry out the unilateral strike that will take them out? I’m not sure any of us knows the answer to that. He’s only been on the job for a couple days now…
“I will have to say that he feels like when he comes to visit President Obama in the next couple weeks, that they need to have a heart-to-heart talk about just how this issue’s going to be dealt with — short term and long term. [Netanyahu] disputes the tone of the article. He says that it was more campaign rhetoric than it was from the standpoint of being the PM.”
Moreover, Chambliss said, it’s important to remember that Israel isn’t the only Middle Eastern country worried about Iran. That country’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is a bid for leadership of the Muslim world. “Obviously that’s not the kind of leadership Arab states want to see take place in their region,” Chambliss said.
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