ARLINGTON, Va., May 27 (UPI) -- Imagine that in 1902, Secretary of War Elihu Root had told U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt the difficulty of suppressing the Philippine Insurrection proved future weapons would need to be useful in conducting irregular warfare. I know, you aren't so clear on what the Philippine Insurrection was. But it was a big deal at the time: 130,000 U.S. troops were deployed in a multiyear counterinsurgency campaign, and more than 4,000 of them died. U.S. forces tortured prisoners. Insurgents committed atrocities. Very messy.
Root's call for greater emphasis on irregular warfare would have seemed quite sensible at the time, because nobody expected the great powers to ever go to war again. Their economies were too closely linked. So anarchists, insurgents and other unconventional enemies looked like the wave of the future.
Nonetheless, a dozen years later the great powers did go to war, and what followed made the guerrilla wars of the previous generation look like child's play. U.S. troops marched off to World War I so ill-prepared that they had to borrow planes from European allies just to secure the air space above their trenches.
As it turned out, World War I was just the beginning, and America spent most of the rest of the 20th century fighting or preparing to fight other industrial powers. But the really big war -- the one between capitalism and communism that could have ended it all -- never happened, because after fighting fascism America's leaders decided there was no substitute for being prepared. They relearned the lesson that George Washington gleaned from 18th century English historian Edward Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire": If you want peace, prepare for war. Faced with a heavily armed United States, the Soviet Union chose not to launch World War III.
Today, the Bush administration is trying to unlearn this vital lesson from America's past, and as a result the Air Force's F-22 fighter is once again at risk. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says that "any major weapons program, in order to remain viable, will have to show some utility and relevance to the kind of irregular campaigns that ... are most likely to engage America's military in coming decades."
As Josh White of The Washington Post noted in his May 14 report on the secretary's remarks, Gates repeatedly has singled out the F-22 as an example of misplaced priorities in military investment plans.
But Gates is wrong about the F-22. He doesn't know what the future holds, and the history of the last 100 years weighs heavily against his assessment of future threats -- as do the war-fighting scenarios being prepared for the next quadrennial defense review.
The problem in Iraq isn't misplaced military priorities or lack of intelligence, but the Iraqis themselves. We cannot make them something they are not, and killing the F-22 to buy more Predators won't change that fact. Instead, it will give rise to other threats far worse than anything al-Qaida or the Mehdi Army are likely to dream up, because countries like China will see that the United States no longer can count on global air dominance.
This danger was well understood the last time the U.S. Department of Defense had a bipartisan, consensus-based management team. In a letter to the chairman of the Appropriations Defense Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives dated July 15, 1999, Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen said: "For 50 years every American soldier has gone to war confident that the United States had air superiority. Canceling the F-22 means we cannot guarantee air superiority in future conflicts. It will also have a significant impact on the viability of the Joint Strike Fighter program. The F-22 will enable the Joint Strike Fighter to carry out its primary strike mission. The JSF was not designed for the air superiority mission."
Gates needs to find that letter and read it, because it is still true.
(Loren B. Thompson is chief executive officer of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank that supports democracy and the free market.)