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Gates warns against excess with F-22s

The Defense secretary says the expensive F-22 fighter jet has limited use and building more may make the U.S. more vulnerable.

July 17, 2009|Julian E. Barnes

CHICAGO — Intensifying a fight over the fate of the military's F-22 stealth fighter jets, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday that the push by lawmakers for additional planes -- against the Pentagon's recommendation -- actually risks making America more vulnerable.

In a speech before the Economic Club of Chicago, Gates called the plane a perfect illustration of what is wrong with the way the United States spends money on defense: building expensive weapons with limited use rather than cheaper systems that U.S. forces are more likely to employ.

"We must change the way we think and the way we plan -- and fundamentally reform -- the way the Pentagon does business and buys weapons," Gates said.

In a Pentagon budget submitted to Congress, Gates halted further production of the F-22. But a Senate defense authorization measure restored money for seven additional planes. House bills seek partial funding for 12 more.

President Obama has threatened to veto any defense bill that contains funding for more F-22s, a threat Gates reiterated in his address.

The Senate is considering one amendment, backed by Obama's onetime presidential rival, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), that would strip funding for the plane. A vote on that measure is expected next week.

Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on defense, predicted the White House would compromise on the F-22 and other issues.

"We'll work it out," Murtha told reporters. "In the end, the bill won't be vetoed."

In Chicago, Gates delivered his speech to an audience of 800 near the home base of Boeing Co., a partner with Lockheed Martin Corp. in building the F-22. In April, Gates outlined a series of deep cuts, including the F-22, an airborne laser system, new presidential helicopters and others. Gates described his recommendations as an attempt to change the nation's mind-set about how to plan for war.

"Every defense dollar diverted to fund excess or unneeded capacity -- whether for more F-22s or anything else -- is a dollar that will be unavailable to take care of our people, win the wars we are in, to deter potential adversaries, and to improve capabilities in areas where America is underinvested and potentially vulnerable," he said.

Gates in recent months also has emphasized the need for the Pentagon to focus more on the fights like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan and less on wars among big powers, which he sees as less likely.

Gates in his speech said that the helicopter was an example of how mounting requirements can drive up costs.

"We ended up with helicopters that cost nearly half a billion dollars each and enabled the president to, among other things, cook dinner while in flight under nuclear attack," Gates said to laughter from the Chicago crowd.

Obama has criticized the new helicopter, but congressional supporters said canceling it would waste money already spent on its development.

The F-22 originally was designed to counter a potential Soviet threat. The Pentagon has spent an estimated $65 billion researching, developing and building 187 F-22s.

Gates prefers the cheaper F-35, which he has argued is newer, carries more weapons and will prove superior in combat.

Lockheed Martin has said that about a third of the F-22's approximately 1,000 suppliers are in California, providing up to 6,500 jobs. Boeing assembles the aircraft's aft section and wings in its Seattle plants. In Baltimore, Northrop Grumman Corp. builds the plane's radar. In Connecticut, Pratt & Whitney builds the engine.

However, Gates said the work created by the F-35 -- 38,000 jobs now, growing to 82,000 by 2011 -- exceeds the 24,000 jobs directly involved in F-22 production.

Earlier in the day, on a visit to Ft. Drum, N.Y., Gates said he was considering a temporary expansion in the size of the Army, which would be the second such effort in recent years. Sen Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) has proposed temporarily raising total Army strength by 30,000 above its current size of 547,400.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

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