Budget analysts are closely watching the F-22's fate as a crucial barometer of the new administration's approach to money matters. The Air Force is arguing that the stealth fighter, which is invisible to most radar systems, is vital for a number of reasons. Chief among them, it says, is that it is the only aircraft capable of penetrating Iranian airspace without being detected. Currently, 183 fighters have been built or are under construction. With the cost more than $300 million per fighter, however—roughly three times the originally projected cost—the Air Force has backed off its original request for 200 more of them. A senior Air Force officer privately says that officials "would be happy with" an additional 40 to 60 fighters.
Given the problems the plane has had with cost overruns and pilot complaints about its limited maneuverability, even a compromise to build 20 more fighters would "signal that there hasn't been a change in how we're procuring these," says Mandy Smithberger, an investigator with the Project on Government Oversight. "We think the right and courageous thing to do is to stop procuring it." But, she adds, "I think one of the big problems you see is just how many members of Congress are willing to back defense programs not based on national security but jobs."
Other expensive programs are under new scrutiny as well. Army officials called a roundtable discussion for reporters earlier this month to defend the Army's new high-tech network of vehicles and robots, called the Future Combat System, arguing that it is needed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But after Gates's recent lambasting of "baroque" weapons systems and a warning that the defense spending "spigot" opened after 9/11 is now closing, Pentagon officials are privately betting on cuts not only to the F-22 but also to the Army's FCS program, which has run nearly $160 billion over original cost estimates.
The Pentagon critics are buoyed by some new oversight proposals, including a bill cosponsored by Sens. John McCain and Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee. A memo prepared by Levin's staff on the legislation to rein in cost overruns notes that the Pentagon's major programs, on average, exceed their research and development budgets by 40 percent and are delivered two years late. "Such cost growth has become so pervasive," notes the memo, "that it may come to be viewed as an expected and acceptable occurrence in the life of a weapons program."
Few would argue this point. The question is whether the Pentagon, under Gates, can usher in a new era of reform. With hundreds of billions of dollars at stake, each cut will be a fight, both within the Pentagon and among lawmakers, who effectively have the final say.