In a bid to garner more support as he runs to recapture his old U.S. Senate seat, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) has begun to praise the capabilities of a warplane that he once tried to kill. In what he has dubbed his “Fiscal Fitness” plan, the former two-term Senator and ex-Obama Administration official offers a series of policy prescriptions that he claims will save taxpayers money. One of Feingold’s proposals is to kill the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, which seeks to provide the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps with a next-generation fighter, in favor of retaining F-16 and F/A-18 aircraft.
As a Senator, Feingold repeatedly sought to cut funding for the F/A-18 Super Hornet. Using both stand-alone legislation and floor amendments, Feingold vigorously waged war on military readiness by attempting to force the military to stop buying the airplane.
“The Secretary of Defense shall terminate the F/A-18E/F aircraft program,” one Feingold bill declared.
But now that he’s back on the campaign trail, Feingold has changed his tune. Calling the F/A-18 and the Air Force’s smaller F-16 “cost-effective,” the Democratic Senator is insisting that the military not buy the newer F-35 in favor of keeping older aircraft flying. Feingold is skeptical that the F-35 will perform as advertised, and his plan calls for “Replacing this program [the F-35] with purchases of existing F-16s and F/A-18s.”
That may sound good, but it isn’t a straightforward solution. Lockheed is still building F-16s for allied nations, but Boeing, which builds the F/A-18, doesn’t build the older version of the warplane anymore; instead the company exclusively manufactures the very version Feingold repeatedly opposed in the late 1990s.
Feingold’s call for the Air Force to continue its dependence on aging but still lethal F-16 is out of step with the latest thinking by defense leaders and analysts. Recently, a Congressional committee that shared Feingold’s skepticism of the F-35 being able to live up to promises, began the process of examining whether or not the F-22 Raptor, still the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world, should be brought back into production. The Air Force, thanks to budget cuts, stopped well short of buying as many of the airplanes as experts suggested would be necessary to maintain a strong airpower edge.
Why Feingold’s plan doesn’t call for increasing F-22 purchases is unclear; it could simply be that Russ Feingold opposes new warplanes that allow the military to maintain its vaunted technological superiority. Alternatively, Feingold could have omitted the suggestion because his “Fiscal Fitness” plan wasn’t about putting forward serious policy ideas and was instead designed to look tough without actually focusing on real policy ideas.