A frustrating tendency in media coverage of the defense budgeting process is the presumption that anything Congress adds to the Department of Defense’s budget request must be political pork (see, for example, “Pork-Laden Defense Bill Weighed“).

We have separate branches of government. It is not Congress’ job to merely rubber stamp the desires of the executive. This is true even on issues of defense policy.

We have an unfortunate tendency to assume that whatever the DoD requests represents hard-core, U.S. national security interests, and that therefore any cuts or additions made by Congress represent either an underfunding of key functions or an attempt to insert political pork into the budget. In reality, DoD budget requests vary in quality. They are also affected by politics, institutional biases, internal lobbying, and sometimes just plain errors in judgment. There is nothing magical about DoD or Service budget requests. And Congress has every right to cast a skeptical eye on both toplines and specific requests.

In the big picture, the current DoD budget request is tremendously problematic. Secretary Gates’ embrace of the notion that the American military has to be reoriented in order to be better able to engage in long-term occupations of foreign countries is both strategically suspect and probably not politically viable in the long run. Because we are spending so much time focused on the economy and health care, we have not had a serious debate on defense policy in this country. But if we did, I doubt that many would be impressed with the analytic foundations of current defense planning. In short, the Gates’ budget request is — in a macro sense — a deeply flawed product being sustained by an unholy coalition of neoconservatives who like the idea of developing capabilities for an expanded imperial mission and misguided progressives who are excited about seeing major programs cut regardless of the reasons for doing so.

There are three specific issues, however, to address in the current and recent debates: the presidential helicopter, additional transport aircraft, and the F22.

First, a few words about the presidential helicopter. If pork is about spending money unnecessarily for political reasons, it is the president and DoD who are engaging in pork and not the Congressmen who want to add in $400 million to finish off the first round of the new presidential helicopter program. We’ve spent over $3 billion on this program already. The helicopters are largely built; I’ve actually touched two of them. We need a new presidential helicopter. The current ones are almost 40 years old and have no advanced communications capabilities. If the president had to evacuate the White House in an emergency, he would be out of touch with military commands for at least 20 minutes until he got to Air Force One or some other location. It is just an intolerable situation.

Gates ridiculed them in a July 16 speech in Chicago as helicopters that “cost nearly half a billion dollars each” and would enable the president to “cook dinner while in flight under nuclear attack.”

Basically, there is a tiny galley in the back. It is smaller than you find in your average low-cost regional airline jet. At best, someone might be able to get make the president a grilled cheese sandwich. The reason the White House and Pentagon want to cut the program is that they don’t like the optics of the president flying around in a half-billion dollar aircraft at a time of economic distress. It has NOTHING to do with necessity, and EVERYTHING to do with politics. The president is willing to throw away $3 billion dollars in order to avoid a potentially embarrassing photo op when the new helicopters arrive. I don’t want to make it sound like John Murtha is a hero for trying to restore funding here, because Murtha is after all a pork maven. But on the substance, the president and Gates are wrong, and the Congress — if it adds money back in to complete this program — is right.

Second, additional funding for C-17 transports. We’re using these airframes pretty heavily. Lift is a “meat and potatoes” capability. It took years for us to approve air lift for Darfur, in part because our lift capabilities were badly stretched by on-going operations. This is not some sort of bizarre, exotic program that only serves as a jobs program at home. We’ll use these planes frequently if they are built.  Now, I doubt that request for more C-17s is a function of any sort of careful analytical exercise on the Hill — they likely view it as a jobs bill — but there is nonetheless a reasonable strategic rationale for continuing to build them. In short, this may be both pork and good policy.

Finally, the F-22. The Senate killed efforts to keep the F-22 line open last week after intense lobbying by Secretary Gates. I am genuinely conflicted on the F-22 issue. I agree that it is unlikely that we will ever really use the F-22. The only contingency in which the aircraft makes sense is a Taiwan Strait conflict. That said, we do need to have a robust air superiority capability — this is another one of those meat and potatoes capabilities. And while the 187 F-22s we currently have are probably sufficient for any likely scenario, I am very squeamish about putting all our eggs in such a small basket. With 187 airframes, you can expect maybe 120-130 to be flyable at any one time. In a combat setting, that number would likely drop quickly. This is especially true because stealthy aircraft are very maintenance intensive. Every ding, every scratch dramatically alters its stealth characteristics, and in a war zone, keeping these fighters in the air is going to be a massive challenge. Worse, we’re vulnerable to the element of surprise. If, in the early stages of a conflict, we discover that, say, new advanced optical sensors are more effective than expected against F22s, we’ll take some losses before we can adjust. Maybe we’d take 20% losses until we adjust training, tactics, and procedures to counter our adversary — maybe 50%… maybe 10%. But when you are starting with 187 airframes and dealing with some combat losses and some attrition due to mechanical and maintenance issues, you get down to frighteningly low numbers is a real hurry. Again, much of this is speculative, but it is quite easy to imagine a situation where, as a result of earlylosses, we could be down to only a few dozen flyable airframes, and at that point no matter how good the platform, you just have too few to give you enough coverage to establish air superiority.

The F22 issue is bigger, in short, than just the F22. It speaks to the whole problem of increasingly relying on fewer and fewer platforms that are more and more expensive. But unless we’re going to launch some other air superiority program in the near future, I think we need to ask whether it really makes sense to rely on a mere 187 airframes to provide such a core capability. Again, the issue is not that anyone out there has anything better… it is just that we may have too few planes to do the job regardless of the quality of the opposition.  God forbid we actually end with two contingencies at once, because if you need to start thinking about splitting the force…

It is certainly possible that efforts to add more F-22s to the budget were purely a function of domestic politics. But it is unfortunate that the assumption that the Pentagon’s requests ought to be considered sacrosanct turns what ought to be the starting point of a productive debate into a simplistic screed against “pork.” We still need to have a systematic defense policy debate in this country — we have not had one in over twenty years — and this year’s defense budget should have been subjected to serious review. It unfortunately wasn’t, but the first step in promoting a productive debate is to accept the fact that Congress had a legitimate right to question and alter the defense budget if it sees fit.

Dr. Bernard I. Finel, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a senior fellow at the American Security Project.  This article was originally published at ASP’s Flash Point blog.