Russ Feingold’s War on the F/A-18 Super Hornet

As darkness crept across Afghanistan on a late fall day in 2011, an F/A-18 Super Hornet flown by a U.S. Navy pilot released a single precision guided munition that killed a Taliban leader plotting to carry out attacks against U.S. ground forces. In the previous decade, F/A-18s flown by Navy and Marine aviators flew thousands of missions executing air strike after air strike in support of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

When President Barack Obama insisted on reducing the number of U.S. ground troops in the country, it was aircraft like the Super Hornet that served as a force multiplier allowing the U.S. to continue to keep insurgents at bay while protecting grunts on the ground.

Fast forward to August of 2014, and a pair of F/A-18s flying from the deck of the USS George H.W. Bush became the first U.S. warplanes to attack ISIS. Since 2001, the F/A-18 has seen service in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and served as an important tool for both Republican and Democratic Presidents. More critically, the F/A-18’s ability to fulfill both air superiority and ground attack roles has meant that it could provide vital protection for U.S. troops waging war on the ground.

It’s not an understatement to say that the F/A-18 has saved lives.

But none of this would have been possible if Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) had gotten his way. Twice, in two successive sessions of Congress, the ultra-leftist Democrat introduced legislation to kill the F/A-18 Super Hornet.

In 1997, Feingold introduced S.520 which demanded that the Secretary of Defense immediately halt the procurement program for the F/A-18 E and F variants, which were intended to replace outdated F-14 Tomcats which were more expensive to fly and were relics of the Cold War.

“The Secretary of Defense shall terminate the F/A-18E/F aircraft program,” the legislation declared. Two years later, in 1999, Feingold introduced the exact same language in S.129.

Additionally, Feingold twice introduced amendments on the floor of the Senate to limit how many F/A-18 Super Hornets the military could buy. Large, bipartisan majorities rejected the amendments each time.

The Super Hornet is a modernized and larger version of its smaller predecessor, the F/A-18 Hornet. In the early 1990s the Navy, facing a shrinking post-Cold War budget, wanted to combine the functions of a fighter (the F-14) with an attack aircraft (A-6) and significantly upgrade the resulting plane to meet 21st Century threats.

To make the savings possible, the Navy – along with its subordinate force the Marine Corps – needed to fund the development of, and ultimately buy, the F/A-18 Super Hornet. Within the decade the military was taking delivering of the new warplane and barely into the 21st Century it would become a workhorse in the skies above the Middle East.

Why Feingold opposed the purchase of a cost-saving aircraft is unclear. According to Boeing, the current manufacturer of the Super Hornet, the plane “is the most cost-effective aircraft in the U.S. tactical aviation fleet, costing less per flight hour than any other tactical aircraft in U.S. forces inventory.” Further, upgrades to the aircraft mean it is projected to be in service until 2040, making it a relative bargain in the ever expensive world of warplane development.

Feingold’s subsequent opposition to the war in Iraq hardly offers any justification for his ardent opposition to an airplane the Clinton administration wanted for its cost savings and multi-role capabilities.

As the long-time Democratic Senator runs to regain his old seat from Wisconsin this year, national security will be – and has been – a topic of debate. Explaining to Wisconsin voters why he opposed a warplane that has kept American fighting men and women safe will be a lot more difficult than offering vague pronouncements about American policy. Voters understand the difference between opposing various wars and opposing the tools that keep American service members safe and allow them to do their job and come home. The latter is hard to justify.