The F22: Toe of the Dragon

08/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In a mountain overlooking a village, a dragon has found a cozy lair and a steady supply of villagers to eat. Idealistic young men and women periodically ride out to the mountain to slay the dragon, only to be scorched by its hot breath or eaten like tasty snacks. The best and the brightest in the village have been working on the "dragon problem" for the last five decades but haven't gotten anywhere. The dragon has long been a drag on the local economy. Key village industries have simply moved elsewhere. Desperation and apathy have become pervasive.

Many villagers have gotten used to the dragon. Some are even enthusiastic supporters of the beast. After all, it only eats a small percentage of the population every year. That's a small price to pay for keeping out invading armies, which are scared of coming anywhere near the dragon's lair. And there are rumors of worse dragons. Better the dragon you know...

The new king of the village, however, isn't happy with the status quo. He has come to the throne with a popular slogan: Change. The villagers expect great things from their new leader. The last king, the deeply unpopular King George, was rumored to have been feeding the dragon on the sly. Indeed, the dragon may have played a role in installing him on the throne in the first place. The new king, meanwhile, has grand plans for his realm. What's the point of a new village health care system if the dragon continues to carry off so many young people?

So, one bright summer morning, the new king suits up in special armor. He climbs atop the strongest and fastest steed in the village. He selects the longest lance from the royal arsenal. And he rides off to the mountain to slay the dragon.

The villagers gather in the town square and wait. And they wait. And they wait.

Finally, near dusk, the king rides back. His armor is battered. His lance is broken. His horse is lame. But when he throws his helmet to the ground, the villagers see that he is smiling.

"I have confronted the dragon," he proclaims. "And I have won." The villagers cheer. They eagerly crowd around his horse to see some proof of the demise of their nemesis.

The king holds something high in the air. It can just be seen in the fading light. It is rather small. Is it the dragon's mighty heart? Its tiny, malevolent brain? No, it's, it's...

"I have brought you back the dragon's toe," the king says proudly.

The people of the village exchange glances. There is much murmuring. Finally, a voice rings out. "The toe?" the village idiot guffaws. "I could have done that myself. On a donkey. With a bread knife."

"You don't understand," the king replies hotly. "It's a big dragon. We have to start somewhere!"

And indeed, President Obama has started somewhere in his fight with America's great dragon, the military-industrial complex. The toe, in this case, is the F-22, a stealth fighter jet. As toes go, it's an impressive one. The F-22 has been around for 30 years. Each one costs about $350 million to build.

But in the grand scheme of things, the F-22 is just the smallest appendage. The overall savings is about $1.75 billion. And it's not really savings. The money will simply be applied to other Pentagon priorities. Obama was able to gain John Kerry's support for axing the F-22 only when he promised that the Pentagon would still be building F-35s in Massachusetts. This F-35, the Joint Strike Fighter, is going to cost about $1 trillion to buy and operate. It's like removing the dragon's toe only to provide it with a new, bionic replacement.

The dragonkeeper, Pentagon chief Robert Gates, has supported Obama on this minor surgery. He knows that, when it comes to dragons, it's best to sacrifice a small toe to keep the overall animal happy. After all, the Obama administration's first military budget -- a whopping $636 billion -- provided a comfortable increase over and above inflation. The dragon doesn't have to go on a diet.

The truly frightening aspect of this cautionary fairy tale is the sheer difficulty the president and the Pentagon chief faced in carrying out their modest operation. The Senate Armed Services Committee initially restored funding for the F-22. The House was leaning in that direction too. This support came even though Lockheed Martin, the builder of F-22s, was supporting Gates and Obama.

Our representatives are particularly vulnerable on the jobs issue. They are loath to reduce employment in a flat-lining economy. So, to slay the dragon, we need to demonstrate that reductions in the Pentagon budget will translate into new jobs for workers in other sectors.

That's exactly the approach we're taking with the new report from Foreign Policy In Focus: "Military vs. Climate Security: Mapping the Shift from the Bush Years to the Obama Era." Report author Miriam Pemberton points out that the Obama administration is doing better than its predecessor in addressing the threat of global warming. But we need to start converting jobs in the military sector to jobs in the climate change sector. "The public interest in a habitable planet, now threatened by climate change, requires us to rethink an old topic: industrial policy. This topic has been off-limits to public discourse for decades -- except when it is raised to kill attempts to steer industrial production in one direction or another, as in: 'Government can't fund research and development into low emission vehicles -- that's industrial policy. That's communism.'"

The dragon is still happily ensconced in its lair. We have one of its toes, and we should celebrate that victory. But we need an entirely new strategy to dislodge the beast from our midst. We can't wait for a knight in shining armor to do the job for us.

Crossposted from Foreign Policy In Focus, where you can read the full post.

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