When Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently visited China, the historic trip was nearly overshadowed by breathless coverage of a new Chinese military jet’s first flight.
This was not a Sputnik moment for America. The stealthy-looking Chinese fighter, known as the J-20, may be nothing more than a Potemkin plane designed to showcase the country’s long-term military aspirations. It looked like it could have been heisted from the Hollywood lot used to film the Cold War-era Clint Eastwood film, “Firefox,” about a frighteningly advanced Russian fighter.
If Sec. Gates wants to save face and one-up the Chinese in such matters, he has an unusual option when China’s President Hu Jintao visits Washington this week.
He could hint that he is considering cancelling the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is the most expensive weapons program ever.
At this point, the U.S.-Chinese strategic relationship is more about the raging federal budget deficit than any one plane. China is the largest holder of U.S. debt, just over $900 billion worth according to the Treasury Department.
The F-35 program, led by Lockheed Martin Corp., is supposed to provide thousands of jets for the Air Force, Navy and Marines. As it stands, the planes are expected to cost the U.S. more than $1 trillion to develop, buy and operate well into the 21st Century.
Sec. Gates understands the financial peril the U.S courts by buying weapons it does not realistically need or cannot afford. He already ended production of the one U.S. fighter best suited toward a major Pacific conflict with China. In doing so, he had no choice but to press ahead with a different plane, the F-35.
To its supporters, the F-35 effort is a necessary replacement of the mainstays of American and allied airpower. To its detractors, the jet is an unconscionable waste of taxpayer money, which has so far been badly managed by the jet’s builder and the government.
No matter how hard it tries, the U.S. is unable to affordably develop new warplanes and the F-35 did not become the exception to this legacy that it once promised to be.
The J-20’s flight and the F-35’s fate have strategic implications, but not for the obvious reasons.
The Chinese are baiting the U.S. to borrow billions more, possibly hundreds of billions more, by showcasing the J-20 as they did. Instantly, proponents for boosting America’s military spending found new resolve in justifying billions of dollars in weapons that are of little use during the low-intensity military operations expected in the future.
The Chinese leadership visiting Washington will be following this debate during what is essentially an investor due diligence trip. The renewed calls to spend more on the Pentagon’s most advanced weaponry are being drowned out by rallying cries to shrink government spending of all kinds before the federal deficit becomes an even greater strategic liability.
How the Obama administration delivers that message is crucial. Sec. Gates, who is expected to step down this year, would be a perfect messenger.