As Politico reports, today Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will step forward to offer a list of procurement programs the administration is putting on the chopping block in the coming year. It won’t be the first time that Secretary Gates has moved to cut high profile programs that, in his estimation, the United States military can do without. And, as he makes his case today for doing away with systems like the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, it’s worth keeping in mind that Gates’s track record leaves open the question of whether these recommendations are based on anything other than his own estimation.

In April 2009, Gates first took the “unorthodox approach,” as he described it at the time, of announcing plans to kill a weapons system before the White House submitted its official budget request. Then it was the F-22, the C-17, and an array of other programs with deep support in Congress.

The decision to kill the F-22, which was then – and still is – the only stealth fighter in production in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world, was hugely controversial. Gates made the case against continued production of the F-22 again that summer in a speech in Chicago that downplayed the need for the ultra-stealthy, ultra-lethal and ultra-expensive aircraft in light of other Pentagon procurement programs and a minimal threat from potential U.S. competitors like China:

Consider that by 2020, the United States is projected to have nearly 2,500 manned combat aircraft of all kinds. Of those, nearly 1,100 will be the most advanced fifth generation F-35s and F-22s. China, by contrast, is projected to have no fifth generation aircraft by 2020. And by 2025, the gap only widens. The U.S. will have approximately 1,700 of the most advanced fifth generation fighters versus a handful of comparable aircraft for the Chinese. Nonetheless, some portray this scenario as a dire threat to America's national security.  

If the estimate of projected Chinese fighter strength was based on any intelligence, the documents certainly weren’t made available to the public, and regardless, the estimate seemed to have changed just a year later. In May 2010, Gates gave a speech in Kansas in which he asked, rhetorically I guess, "Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?" It’s hard to figure what the new estimate was for China’s stealth fighter fleet in 2020—but it was no longer zero.

And now it looks like the estimate might need to be revised again. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday on pictures now circulating of what appear to be a stealth fighter prototype sitting on a ChiCom runway in Chengdu – the home of China’s military aviation industry. According to U.S. officials, the Chinese stealth fighter “will likely be operational around 2018.” 

While the Chinese program is running two to four years ahead of Secretary Gates’s schedule, our own stealth programs are running into entirely predictable delays. Production of the F-22 will end this year, and production of the stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Pentagon’s largest procurement project ever, may fall another two years behind schedule.

None of this will help Gates pitch his latest round of cuts. Congress offered real resistance before caving on F-22 last time. They will be even less likely to play ball this time around – even as there is tremendous pressure to cut spending. But the Chinese are also sending a message to their neighbors and to their United States. While India moves forward, ever so slowly, on plans for a major buy of fourth-generation fighters (hopefully U.S.-made Boeing F-18s), China is demonstrating its commitment to develop a (mostly) indigenous fifth-generation fighter. They not only plan to push the U.S. out of the Western Pacific with access-denial weapons like the much discussed “carrier-killer” ballistic missile and anti-satellite weapons like the one tested in 2007, but they plan to police the region on their own.

This administration’s shortsighted F-22 decision is just one dimension of the larger, and continuing, U.S. retreat from the entire “perimeter” with China, not only in the Northeast but also in Southeast Asia. And it’s not just the F-22 but also the tanker, the pullout from bases, the shrinking of the Navy, and so on. We’re sacrificing strategic gains made over decades (Korea and Japan) if not longer (the Philippines and Southeast Asia) – and the administration is allowing a qualitative and quantitative advantage amassed by a previous generation to erode.

Our new Congress should be appropriately wary of any further cuts to procurement, and appropriately skeptical of the assumptions about China that are guiding the administration’s thinking.