The U.S. Senate just approved a measure to strike increased funding for the Marietta-built F-22 Raptor, bowing to a veto threat from President Barack Obama.
The vote was 58-40 — not as close as many expected.
U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss led the support for the purchase of seven additional stealth fighters, forming an alliance with Democrats from states whose economies would be affected by the vote.
The vote was marked by a cross-party flow. John McCain (R-Ariz.) allied himself with President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Gates advocated that the U.S. military cap the number of stealth fighters at 187. Obama promised to veto the $680 billion defense spending bill if the extra F-22 spending were not removed.
Two of the more notable votes against extra F-22 funding were John Ensign (R-Nevada) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). Moderate Republican Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) sided with Chambliss. Barbara Boxer (D-California) sided with Chambliss.
McCain, whom Chambliss endorsed in the 2008 presidential primary, gave one of the closing arguments, and repeatedly called for an end to “business as usual” defense procurement.
“We’re not saying the F-22 is not a good aircraft. We’re saying it’s time to end production,” he argued.
Many senators supporting continued production pointed to jobs that would be lost nationwide. About 6,000 people work at the Lockheed Martin plant in Marietta. The plant’s payroll last year was $528 million. It is Cobb County’s second-largest private employer, trailing WellStar Health System.
Lockheed has been relatively silent during the debate over the F-22. The defense bill at issue also contains spending for production of another jet, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. This spring, Georgia’s congressional delegations said they were assured by Lockheed Martin that the 2,000 employees who assemble the F-22 will probably still have their jobs with or without the plane.
Chambliss acknowledged concerns about cost. “This is an expensive weapon. But this is the most sophisticated weapons system ever designed by mankind,” Chambliss said. Much of the debate had to do with limited U.S. resources and whether warfare involving air-to-air combat was on the horizon.
The F-22 is designed to destroy rival air power — which barely existed in the Iraq war and plays no role in the Afghanistan conflict.
From the floor, Chambliss read this paragraph from a Washington Times op-ed piece written by Richard D. Fisher Jr. of the International Assessment and Strategy Center, in today’s Washington Times:
Though the Chinese government says next to nothing and the U.S. government says very little, what is known about China’s fifth-generation fighter program is disturbing. Both of China’s fighter manufacturers, the Shenyang and Chengdu Aircraft corporations, are competing to build a heavy fifth-generation fighter, and there are serious indicators China may be working on a medium-weight fifth-generation fighter similar to the F-35. China can be expected to put a fifth-generation fighter on its future aircraft carriers, and it can be expected to build more than 187.
As noted in The Hill, passions stirred by the debate could be measured by the appearance of a frail Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.), who voted to preserve F-22 funding:
Byrd, 91, had been hospitalized with an infection for the better part of two months. An initial infection had worsened while Byrd was in the hospital. He was finally released June 30, but only returned to the Senate on Tuesday.
The Washington Post gave this assessment:
The decision was a key policy victory for Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who has been campaigning against the plane since April as a centerpiece of his effort to “fundamentally reshape the priorities of America’s defense establishment and reform the way the Pentagon does business — in particular, the weapons we buy and how we buy them,” as he put it in a Chicago speech last Thursday.
Gates had depicted the F-22, which was conceived in the 1980s, as a “silver bullet solution” to a high-technology aerial warfare threat that has not materialized. He said other warplanes will adequately defend the country for decades to come, and won support from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Air Force’s two senior leaders. But his view was strongly opposed by others in the Air Force and by military contractors and unions that have benefited from the $65 billion program.
The New York Times adds this coda from the White House:
Immediately after the vote, Mr. Obama praised the Senate’s decision, saying that any money spent on the fighter was an “inexcusable waste.”
Senate aides said that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, pushed hard to rally support for the president through phone calls to crucial senators.
U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson just issued the following reaction:
“I’m extremely disappointed the Senate did not recognize how essential the continued production of this aircraft is to our national security as well as to the many local economies and thousands of workers that will be devastated as a result of these cuts.”
For instant updates, follow me on Twitter.