x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Will gallant Obama enter the Raptor's lair and slay it?

US president George W Bush has shown us how much easier it is to wage war, than it is to control the US defence budget.

US President George W Bush has shown us how much easier it is to wage war, even an unnecessary one, than it is to control the US defence budget. From 2001 to this year, defence spending rose to US$480 billion (Dh1.76 trillion), an increase of 60 per cent. Include off-budget expenditures for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and that figure swells to $670bn. The US spends more on national security than the rest of the world combined, with an annual outlay slightly larger than the GDP of Turkey, the world's 17th-largest economy. If there was ever a prime target for cost cutting in the world's most indebted economy - particularly in this recession - it is America's bloated defence budget. But will Barack Obama, the president-elect, pull the -trigger? If Mr Obama wants to demonstrate to the world his commitment to budgetary discipline in the face of fierce political pressure, he must do just that. He must venture into the lair of the Raptor and slay it. The F-22 Raptor war plane, produced by Lockheed Martin, is an engineering marvel. Among its many tricks is to pivot horizontally as it surveys the horizon for targets. It is also, as its name suggests, a dinosaur, designed to match the best Soviet fighters never built. Since it was developed in the late 1980s, the US government has spent $65bn manufacturing the F-22, which - depending on how many are produced - costs between $140 million and $345m, according to the US government accountability office. (The Pentagon's other "fifth generation" warplane, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a bargain at $70m a unit.) The air force is lobbying for $9bn to build 60 more F-22s over three years, for a total fleet of 243. The air force says it needs the aircraft to counter the threat from... well, no one is sure, really. Robert Gates, the secretary of defence, who has been asked by Mr Obama to remain at his post, opposes further investment in the programme. There is nothing in the Russian or Chinese air arsenals to match the F-22, assuming they would ever be inclined to try. So far, the only battle the Raptor has fought has been with budget hawks, and it has won them all. If the fighter has no peer for manoeuvrability in the skies, neither is there anyone in Washington to rival the marketing instincts of its maker. In developing the aircraft, Lockheed Martin was careful to spread its supplier network across many legislative districts, meaning 25,000 workers owe their livelihoods to the Raptor at a time when the US economy is expected to -contract. Senior legislators, Republican and Democrat, support the F-22 for the sake of the jobs that would be lost to production cuts - making it a $65bn jobs mill. If only this situation ended with the F-22. The US defence budget is packed with outdated weaponry that could have been discarded decades ago were it not for nest-feathering -politicians. Donald Rumsfeld, Mr Gates's predecessor and a formidable Washington operator, tried with little success to transform the Pentagon's cold-war arsenal into a lighter, more flexible fighting force. He, too, tried to ground the Raptor, only to be outmanoeuvred by politicians. Now it is Mr Gates's turn. Fortunately, his new boss seems to be far more interested in the federal bureaucracy, including its military budget, than did Mr Bush. If the president-elect can't pull the nation's defence spenders into line, no one can. The question is whether Mr Obama will have the courage to choose fiscal temperance over political sanctuary. sglain@thenational.ae