OUR OLD HOMETOWN FIGHTER PLANE

The Boeing F-15 fighter plane -- responsible for thousands of jobs in St. Louis -- is back in the news again, so I thought I'd better get up to speed on the subject.

I went to the coffee table for some back issues of Air Force Magazine.

Just as I suspected, the boys in the Air Force aren't flying aerial tributes over the good F-15 news in St. Louis: that our congressional delegation has wrangled about $275 million bloated defense dollars out of the Pentagon's budget, with an extra $25 million in advance procurement from FY2001 thrown in for good measure.

Actually, this all hit the Air Force like Pearl Harbor last summer, when the budget was decimated for its pet F-22 super-duper fighter plane (derided in 1995 by our own Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond as "the Air Force's favorite glamour project," back in the days before Boeing called St. Louis its vacation home). The F-22 money went for more F-15's, among other things, and the Air Force brass went ballistic.

The story's back in the news because Bond was in town on a little victory lap to get his propers from Boeing F-15 workers and executives. This, of course, made the financial news, because our hometown-boosting Post-Dispatch unabashedly considers any military spending involving Boeing a local-jobs story and not a public-policy matter ("Short Cuts," RFT , May 19).

The Air Force didn't send over champagne. Here's how the official publication of the Air Force Association told the story in last August's issue (with my italics, just to highlight their pique):

"An amendment attached to the Senate defense appropriations bill for FY 2000 just before final floor action would force the Air Force to buy four new F-15E fighters at the expense of spare parts budgets and other O&M accounts.

"The provision was sponsored by Missouri and Illinois lawmakers whose constituents would be affected by a shutdown of Boeing's St. Louis F-15 production line. It was inserted at the 11th hour during floor debate on the legislation June 8 and passed by voice vote.

"About $70 million of the $220 million needed to purchase the aircraft would come from the Air Force's aircraft spares and repair parts budget, reducing this crucial area of funding by about 16 percent."

I'm no defense expert, but these don't sound like happy Air Force guys to me. They didn't sound so pleased in the September issue, either, when they said cutting the F-22 program would be "a monumental blunder."

To hear the Air Force tell it, the F-15 we turn out here in St. Louis is sort of a flying '57 Chevy, recognized as the "classic air superiority fighter of all time" but just not equipped to take us to another millennium. For the next century, the F-22 "air superiority fighter" is all that stands between us and certain destruction by a coalition of Martians, Saddam Hussein and Colombian drug lords.

"The Air Force (told Congress) that the MiG-29 and Su-27, which are deployed around the world in large numbers, are at near parity with the F-15, and that by 2005, the F-15 will be at a disadvantage to the Su-35 and export versions of the French Rafale and the European Consortium's Eurofighter. It is also vulnerable to late model surface-to-air missiles," an editorial in the September Air Force Magazine reads.

Damn. We're in trouble in our next war with France, and we've got no chance against the European Union -- not to mention all those countries to which they export weaponry in competition with American efforts (such as ours in St. Louis) to further militarize simmering regions of the world in the name of saving jobs.

Now, where I come from, we don't give a lot of credence to the dramatic pleadings of military officials during budget hearings -- they just sound too much like zoo seals at feeding time -- but it is quite humorous to watch defense-buildup stalwarts of both parties completely ignore the generals' judgment when there are local jobs on the line.

In St. Louis, that literally means the F-15 production line, where thousands of jobs ride on the continued production of the fighter of which the Air Force says, "We don't need any more."

Oh yes you do, say Reps. Richard Gephardt, James Talent and Ike Skelton and Sens. John Ashcroft and Bond. Didn't the F-15 give Saddam an old-fashioned butt-whupping? And since when does the Air Force tell us what America needs to defend herself?

"Keeping that line alive is vital to our national security," Bond told the Post last May. "I think there is a growing understanding of that on the Hill. I'd like to see the administration share that concern and commitment."

Personally, at the risk of further delaying my Man of the Year award, I'd have to say that I'm having a little trouble with describing our 5,000 jobs producing a fighter plane the Air Force no longer wants as "vital to our national security." But I'd go along with "vital to our local economy," which is why, if we must have outrageously overblown military budgets, the money might as well be spent in St. Louis.

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