March 09, 2009

It's Not About Defense. It's About Jobs. Period.

Again, the president has a bigger problem with his own party here than he does with Republicans. All I am asking is that we move these programs out of the defense budget and into a separate stimulus plan so that we can finally start calling this programs what they are -- federal jobs programs. The F-22s and such that we get as a result of these job programs can then either be gifted over to the Department of Defense or sold abroad.

Congressional and industry leaders say they recognize that defense spending is peaking, and the time has come — given the many financial strains on the federal government — to overhaul an acquisition system that has resulted in smaller, but more expensive, fleets of combat planes and ships.

There is also broad political support for the Pentagon’s plans to shift some of the more than $650 billion in defense spending from futuristic weapons programs to simpler arms that the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan can use now.

But with a labor report on Friday showing that the economy has lost 4.4 million jobs since the recession began, “if you’re talking about canceling major weapons systems, that becomes hard,” said William S. Cohen, a former senator from Maine who served as defense secretary under President Bill Clinton.

“Given the economic climate we’re operating in now, any congressman or senator is going to say, ‘I’ve got to protect the jobs in my district or state,’ and that’s understandable,” Mr. Cohen said. “The difficulty now is how do you get a majority to vote against their own interests, even if you could persuade them that the changes would be best for the national defense?”

Perhaps the most controversial program in Mr. Obama’s sights is the Air Force’s advanced F-22 fighter jet, which the Bush administration tried for years to halt, saying it was a cold war relic. Mr. Korb and other analysts say that if the president is determined to fix the contracting process, canceling the F-22 would send a strong signal.

Lockheed Martin, which makes the plane and buys parts from more than 1,000 suppliers in 44 states, has mounted a lobbying campaign emphasizing the high-paying jobs it creates.

Forty-four senators and 200 representatives have written to Mr. Obama urging him to keep buying the planes, costing $143 million each, and some analysts think a compromise to buy 30 to 60 more could be reached.

Still, industry executives say that Mr. Obama and his defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, are clearly serious about making cuts and revamping a contracting process that has let the price tag of the 95 biggest programs grow nearly $300 billion beyond their original cost estimates.