(photo credit: Courtesy)
Congress went into recess this week having dealt what is likely a fatal blow to the F-22 program and Israel's hopes of one day acquiring the state-of-the-art bomber. In a tough fight with the Obama administration, which has long been urging that the pricey program end, the House and Senate both eventually voted to cut funding which would have extended production past the current order of 187 planes already on tap. Though nothing's final until the House and Senate reconcile their defense-spending bills - an effort which won't get started until the fall - it's highly unlikely any additional money for the stealth jet would be added in.
Jerusalem still has the F-22 Raptor at the top of its wish list, with its hopes for obtaining the advanced aircraft now resting on two moves that appear improbable: Congress reversing the ban on exports of the F-22, as well as producer Lockheed Martin deciding there would be enough foreign demand to keep the production line open. Yet ironically, it is exactly the type of threats and experiences that Israel has faced that are helping the US make the case to Congress and the public that the continued production of F-22 and other high-end conventional warfare megaliths need to be rethought.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other leading military officials routinely point to Israel's experience in Lebanon and the challenge posed by Hizbullah to justify the new Pentagon prioritizing. In a frank speech explaining his thinking in July, Gates spoke of the pressing dangers facing the US, emphasizing that "insurgents and militias are acquiring or seeking precision weapons, sophisticated communications, cyber-capabilities and even weapons of mass destruction."
He singled out Israel's foe across the northern border, saying, "The Lebanese extremist group Hizbullah currently has more rockets and high-end munitions - many quite sophisticated and accurate - than all but a handful of countries."
Later Gates wondered whether the US government would exhibit the political fortitude needed to cut the F-22 program. "If we can't bring ourselves to make this tough but straightforward decision - reflecting the judgment of two very different presidents, two secretaries of defense, two chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the current Air Force secretary and chief of staff - where do we draw the line?" he asked. He then proceeded to quote - albeit perhaps unintentionally - the Jewish sage Hillel. "And if not now, when?"
SINCE COMING into office half-way through then-president George W. Bush's second term, Gates has been reviewing US military systems to determine which ones should be employed to meet current needs, and built to counter emerging strategic threats.
"The challenges I faced in getting what our troops needed in the field stood in stark contrast to the support provided by conventional modernization programs - weapons designed to fight other modern armies, navies and air forces, programs that had been in the pipeline for many years and had acquired a loyal and enthusiastic following in the Pentagon, in the Congress and in industry," he recalled in the same address, delivered on July 16 to the Economic Club of Chicago.
That, he declared, had to change. He described the Obama administration's inaugural defense budget proposal as "the nation's first truly 21st century defense budget. It explicitly recognizes that over the last two decades the nature of conflict has fundamentally changed, and that much of America's defense establishment has yet to fully adapt to the security realities of the post-Cold War world and the complex and dangerous new century."
"Secretary Gates has talked about hybrid warfare, and what he sees is that warfare in the future is not going to fit into neat, tidy categories, and there will not be sharp lines between the tactics [of terrorists] and conventional warfare," explained Jim Thomas, a former Pentagon official now with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "Secretary Gates has laid out that, clearly, our number one priorities are winning the wars we're fighting, and he sees that there's a need to [focus on] irregular warfare."
In that regard, Thomas noted, Israel's war with Hizbullah is illustrative.
"The Second Lebanon War kind of points to different tactics and capabilities that adversaries might employ in the field, particularly Hizbullah's use of rockets, mortars and missiles," he said. "It's a more sophisticated threat, and looking beyond that, the ability of irregular forces to gain guided missiles allows them to have effects that have heretofore been out of their reach."
AS HIZBULLAH'S abilities advance, they highlight the shortcomings of an American military approach Thomas characterized as premised on the notion that the US should develop the greatest capabilities possible against its most potent state foes, in the belief that those capabilities can be adapted to thwart the more limited means of non-state actors, such as Hizbullah.
When the US came to Middle Eastern theaters such as Iraq after September 11, Thomas said, "That really didn't hold."
The F-22 has been indicative of this short-coming, according to Guy Ben-Ari of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. While it might possess top-of-the-line maneuvering, stealth and targeting abilities, it is also extremely expensive to fly and repair, so lesser planes are almost always preferred.
"It's sort of, 'What have you done for me lately?' applied to a particular weapons acquisition system," he said of the Obama administration's attitude. "What has the F-22 done in the fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan? â€¦ The answer is nothing."
But, just because the F-22 hasn't flown a single combat mission doesn't mean there aren't plenty of people - Americans as well as Israelis - who would like to see its production line extended.
Gates has been well aware of these constituencies, whom he referred to as the "loyal and enthusiastic following in the Pentagon, in the Congress and in industry."
As Ben-Ari said of the more modest programs that Gates would like to see more of, "They don't create as many jobs in as many districts."
For instance, the administration has had difficulty getting Congress to fully fund mine-resistant vehicles, despite Gates's assessment that twice as many are needed in the field to adequately protect soldiers currently in combat. At the same time, the defense budget faced a veto threat from the White House for adding in more F-22s until Congress relented and removed them.
The F-22, for its part, provides jobs to a reported 22,000 people in 44 different states. Many of the Congressmen who represent districts with defense projects not only want to keep their voters employed, but also receive sizable campaign contributions from the companies who make the military systems.
Some members of Congress state clearly that they want to keep these projects alive to protect jobs. But others have argued that the US risks losing its conventional superiority by making the cuts Gates seeks.
Privately, some on Capitol Hill complain that the Air Force wants more of the planes, but feels pressured to support Obama's agenda of paring down these kinds of military expenditures. Publicly, several members took to the Congressional floor to stand up for the F-22 as the defense budget was being debated.
"Is this plane militarily required? Yes. Is it useless? No. Is it a Cold War element? Well, actually, almost everything we have is a Cold War element. We just simply try to improve them as time goes on," argued Representative Rob Bishop (R-Utah) last week. "The F-22 moves us forward in the technology debate. However, just having the technology doesn't work, if you don't have the numbers."
He pointed to Russia's plans to build 600 next-generation planes, only some 350 of which they intend to keep.
"You have to ask the logical question, 'What will they do with the others?' They will sell them. And where will they go? The bidders right now are countries like Venezuela and Iran," he answered, "countries that could become a problem with this new generation of fighter that they buy from the Russians."
INDEED, IT is primarily to confront the Iranian threat that Israel has eyed the F-22. Any attack on Iran would require the exact capabilities the Raptor can deliver better than any other plane, and merely owning it would give more heft to Israel's perceived deterrence.
But Ben-Ari maintained that the F-22 "is not a deal breaker" when it comes to Israel's ability to stage such an operation.
"It's more than just the aerial platform - it's the munitions, the number of platforms, it's the intelligence you have, and I would argue that the platform isn't the key component," he assessed.
Which should be of some consolation to Israel, since in Washington, if nowhere else, the F-22 seems to have lost the battle.