Gates Lays Down the Gauntlet on the F-22

Defense Secretary Robert Gates isn’t known for his stirring oratory, and his speech to the Economic Club of Chicago is representative of his understated style. But when it comes to the F-22, the SecDef’s ire shows through.

The overarching theme of the speech was the future of the U.S. military, a rather obvious topic. I don’t agree with all that Gates has done, and is preparing to do. I question his fixation on population-centric counterinsurgency and post-conflict reconstruction. I think he could have done more to cut unnecessary weapons systems, although he deserves credit for tackling the low-hanging fruit.

By the same token, much of the criticism leveled against Gates is unfair, and some of it is absurd. Gates demolishes the charge that he has slashed defense spending, by pointing out that the FY2010 budget is $534 billion, $19 billion more than in FY09. “Only in the parallel universe that is Washington, D.C.,” Gates noted, “would that be considered ‘gutting’ defense.”

But he hasn’t shied from making some cuts, and he has taken on some politically popular programs. And the F-22 is at the top of this list. Gates devoted nearly a third of the speech to the F-22, and the bottom line is this:

[I]f we can’t bring ourselves to make this tough but straightforward decision [to terminate the program at 187 aircraft] — reflecting the judgment of two very different presidents, two different 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? And if not now, when? If we can’t get this right — what on earth can we get right? It is time to draw the line on doing Defense business as usual. The President has drawn that line. And that red line is a veto.  And it is real.

No one reading this speech should have any doubts that Gates and President Obama are serious. We’ll know perhaps as soon as Monday — the Senate is supposed to vote on the McCain-Levin amendment to strip funding for the F-22 from the Defense Authorization bill — whether Congress is paying attention.