Something About Airplanes

Overshadowed during this week's continuing debate about health care was a crucially important step in Congress: The United States Senate voted 58-40 in favor of an amendment to strip funding for the F-22 fighter plane out of the Department of Defense Appropriations bill.

The F-22 program is a Cold War relic aimed at producing extremely expensive air superiority fighters to combat the nonexistent next generation of Soviet planes. Putting an end to it and redirecting funds to personnel and unconventional warfare was a signature move of the Obama administration's initial Pentagon budget request. The program, however, has powerful friends in Congress, particularly among members who represent states and districts where the plane is produced. And not coincidentally, defense contractors have tended to ensure that production facilities are located so as to be particularly appealing to those with seats on the relevant committees. Thus, despite the Pentagon's decision not to request money, the appropriating subcommittee decided to add it in anyway. Now, in a remarkable victory for common sense over defense pork, the money is back out.

At $350 million per plane, the F-22 is extraordinarily expensive. It's also remarkably irrelevant to contemporary military challenges. Indeed, for all its advanced capabilities, none of our existing F-22s have ever seen action in either Iraq or Afghanistan. The debate over the F-22 matters, however, not just because of the waste of money. It matters because it's a fundamental test of whether or not the United States' civilian government can gain some form of control over the Pentagon.

Once upon a time, it was generally agreed that spending on defense, like spending on roads or health care, counted as the expenditure of money. Perhaps a good idea, perhaps a bad idea -- it was, at any rate, spending. Spending that had to be judged relative to alternative expenditures of funds or the possibility of lower taxes. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, as an advocate of small government, was actually an advocate for restraint in U.S. defense spending. He thought that we could rely on our nuclear deterrent to secure ourselves and our allies from Soviet aggression. By contrast, big government Democrat John F. Kennedy argued in favor of more spending, both at home and on military forces. The particular merits of these debates aside, the point is that defense spending was generally acknowledged to be a form of spending as such.

Things changed when the modern-day version of the conservative movement came to power in the person of Ronald Reagan. Taxes were slashed. We were told that "government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem." Consequently, spending would be cut in line with taxes, and the size of government would shrink. But in reality, total federal spending was essentially flat in the Reagan years and the country witnessed its first peacetime debt explosion. The reason? Despite the drastic reductions in federal revenues, defense spending skyrocketed.

Under George W. Bush, the same pattern repeated itself. Taxes were cut massively, creating a situation in which we were told we "couldn't afford" various kinds of domestic social outlay. But military spending -- including the "regular" Pentagon budget outside the various war supplementals -- just kept going up. Alleged small-government conservatives enthusiastically support this agenda, and Blue Dog Democrats and other self-proclaimed "deficit hawks" in Congress did not raise a peep of opposition. Indeed, within the GOP caucus, opposition to the federal government having any money is strongly correlated with support for spending tons on defense. And within the Democratic caucus, proclivity to bleating about deficits is, again, correlated with support for massive defense expenditures.

To some liberals, any defense budget fight that doesn't actually reduce expenditures isn't a defense budget fight worth engaging in. But the first step to a serious debate about the necessary level of defense spending is to change the political context so that we're no longer doing fantasyland budgeting for which politicians pretend the Pentagon's bills are paid with Monopoly money.

Speaking on the F-22 issue last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates hinted at an end to this mind-set. He offered an argument whose implications are far more radical than the cancellation of any particular program: "Every defense dollar diverted to fund excess or unneeded capacity … is a dollar that will be unavailable to take care of our people, to win the wars we are in, to deter potential adversaries, and to improve capabilities in areas where America is underinvested and potentially vulnerable." The banal point here is that compared to other possible uses of defense dollars, the F-22 is not a very good option. The radical point is that the cost-benefit analysis should be made in the first place -- unable to simply spend unlimited sums of money, the Pentagon will need to make choices.

Generally, the administration's opponents have not been willing to grant this premise. When Weekly Standard blogger Michael Goldfarb snorted on Tuesday that -- thanks to the Senate's vote -- "America is less safe now than it was an hour ago," he wasn't proposing that the F-22 be saved through a reduction in other defense expenditures. Nor was he proposing tax increases pay for the plane. He just wanted to use the Monopoly money that the right's been spending on defense for decades.

But whether the right wants to admit it, money spent on defense is real money. There are real costs to our economy when we spend money on nonessential weapons systems rather than save it for private-sector investment or public services.

Ideally, we'd take stock of the fact that our country accounts for half of world defense expenditures and decide that spending doesn't make sense. To get to that world, the military must face up to the existence of tradeoffs. Gates' determination that the increases he wants to see in some areas should be paid for by reductions in others -- most notably the F-22 -- is a first step in that direction.

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