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Where's My Flying Tank?

A quick refresher on Gates' "no-brainer" defense cuts—and the programs he should have axed.

| Wed Jun. 24, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

This is Part III in a Mother Jones special report on the defense budget. Click the links for Parts I, II, IV and V.

A quick primer on the problem programs Gates wants to cut and the ones he left intact:

F-22 Raptor Fighter Jet

Designed for dogfighting with Soviet planes, an F-22 costs $351 million, more than double the original projections. It was put into production before being fully tested, and, not surprisingly, has run into all sorts of snags—in fact, it has never flown a single combat mission in Iraq or Afghanistan. Gates wants to buy just 4 more, capping the US's collection at 187 instead of the 243 that the Air Force wanted.

However, Lockheed Martin cannily ensured that manufacturing and assembly for the planes was dispersed across at least 44 states, including Texas and California, which have powerhouse congressional delegations. Earlier this year 194 representatives and 44 senators wrote to President Obama urging him to buy more F-22s, and in mid-June lawmakers on the House Armed Services commmittee inserted money for 12 more jets into the defense budget authorization bill. The fate of the F-22 will be the test of whether Gates can get his budget through Congress more or less intact.

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C-17 Globemaster III Cargo Plane

 Gates actually likes this long-haul plane but says that the Air Force already has 205 of them and doesn't need any more, thanks very much. Try telling that to those thoughtful folks on Capitol Hill who recently slipped $2.17 billion for the planes into a recent war supplemental bill. The C-17s are another handy gauge of how the administration's budget proposal is faring on the Hill, because the plane has a lot of fans.  Sadly, even Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who is normally great on the subject of wasteful government spending, has been urging Gates to buy more C-17s. Boeing, which makes the C-17, says that it provides 900 jobs in Missouri, or 6,000 direct and indirect jobs.

Future Combat Systems

This is the flagship of the Army's fancy modernization program, conjured up by Donald Rumsfeld. It consists of weapons, vehicles, and robots linked by a common communication system, and is yet another case where sci-fi wish lists were put into action before the technology was actually proven. (Exhibit A: the genius who ordered a tank that can be transported by plane before anyone knew whether that was possible.) The FCS contract also ceded way too much oversight responsibility to the contractors—in this case Boeing and Lockheed—and so predictably costs got out of hand. The overall price tag has jumped 73 percent since 2003 to about $159 billion. An internal DOD analysis from 2006 predicted that taxpayers will eventually get stuck with a $203 billion to $234 billion bill if the program is allowed to continue.

Gates wants to axe some of the most controversial, pie-in-the-sky parts of FCS—thus saving a tidy $87 billion—and rethink the entire program in the coming months.

VH-71 Presidential Helicopter

Lockheed Martin was supposed to deliver 23 next-generation helicopters to be used by the president and other high-ranking officials. But the helicopters are six years late and will cost twice the original estimates. Obama called them a poster child for "the procurement process gone amuck." The DOD's new undersecretary for acquisitions, technology, and logistics, Ashton Carter, cancelled the program in May.  Still, the existing presidential helicopters are pretty old, and it's worth watching closely how Congress decides to replace the failed contract. 

DDG-1000 Destroyer

These ships were supposed to cost $4 billion but independent assessments put the real price at closer to $6 billion. They weigh 14,500 tons, so they're not exactly nimble. The Navy initially signed up for 16 to 24, but as problems piled up it decided that it could really use the money for something cheaper and more versatile. So it cut the total DDG-1000s it planned to acquire to eight, and then decided to buy just two instead. However, a group of lawmakers from the New England states where the destroyers are made (mostly Maine and Massachusetts) threw a fit. This year Gates will attempt to phase out the program at three destroyers.

Missile Defense

Gates chopped two of the most problematic aspects of this program—the Airborne Laser Prototype aircraft and the Multiple Kill Vehicle, both flawed Soviet-era relics.

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