The most senior retired military officer to back President Obama's run for the White House says the president is making a "real mistake" in terminating F-22 production.
Retired Gen. Merrill McPeak, who was the Air Force chief of staff during the 1991 Operation Desert Storm and who credited air power with winning the war, was the first four-star officer to endorse the one-term senator in his presidential campaign. McPeak traveled with Obama to bolster the candidate's commander-in-chief credentials, much to the chagrin of the general's fighter pilot colleagues.
But now McPeak is breaking with Obama on the president's most contentious defense budget decision: ending production of the Air Force's top-line fighter at 187 aircraft.
"I think it's a real mistake," McPeak told FOXNews.com. "The airplane is a game-changer and people seem to forget that we haven't had any of our soldiers or Marines killed by enemy air since 1951 or something like that. It's been half a century or more since any enemy aircraft has killed one of guys. So we've gotten use to this idea that we never have to breathe hostile air."
McPeak's comments come as Obama is in the throes of a major battle with Democrats and Republicans who have voted in committee to fund seven more F-22s.
Obama sent a letter to Congress Monday with a blunt warning.
"I will veto any bill that supports acquisition of F-22s beyond the 187 already funded by Congress," Obama wrote. "To continue to procure additional F-22s would be to waste valuable resources that should be more usefully employed to provide our troops with the weapons that they actually do need."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates ramped up the pressure Thursday, attacking Congress for trying to keep the $65 billion program alive.
"If we can't get this right, what on earth can we get right?" Gates said.
But McPeak said the F-22 has the capability to deter attacks.
"We do not want to field an Armed Forces that can be defeated by someone simply by topping our capability," he said. "The F-22 is at the top end. We have to procure enough of them for our ability to put a lid on, to dictate the ceiling of any conflict."
The radar-evading fighter/bomber's role is to control the skies in a future war against a major foe. McPeak and F-22 backers in Congress say 187 planes are simply not enough to do that job given the fact that some will be needed to train pilots and others will be in regular depot maintenance. That may leave only about 100 planes available for a war.
The Air Force had at one time wanted over 700 F-22s, but eventually lowered the figure to 381, then acceded to the 187 number.
"We certainly need some figure well above 200," said McPeak. "That worries me because I think it is pennywise and pound foolish to expose us in a way this much smaller number does ... That's taking too much high-end risk."
Gates defends the termination by saying more money needs to be spent on current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also is increasing production of the multi-service single-engine F-35, a slower aircraft carrying fewer munitions, to augment the F-22. Both planes are to replace the Air Force's aging fleets of F-15 and F-16 fighters.
Obama and Gates are upping the pressure as pro-F-22 forces seem to be gaining steam in Congress.
Yet Levin and McCain were unable to defeat an amendment in committee offered by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., to add seven planes. They will try to kill that provision next week.
In another act of defiance toward the White House on the F-22, Rep. John Murtha's panel added a down payment in the fiscal 2010 defense bill for 12 more jets.
"I think the F-35 is going to be a good airplane, when we get it," McPeak said. "It's just not going to be surprisingly good" like its successor, the F-16. He said the F-35 has been "compromised" in an effort to build versions for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.
McPeak also said he opposes Gate's decision to retire 200 tactical aircraft, mostly F-16s, over the next year.
"Certainly driven by cost, not driven by the fact that we don't have lots of work for these guys to do," he said.
Still, McPeak said he has no second thoughts about backing Obama.
"Barack Obama is doing a tremendous job," he said. "I think he's a great president, and has a shot at being put up on Mount Rushmore. ... My bitch is with Secretary Gates who I do not think has shown a lot of judgment here on these calls regarding the Air Force budget. ... His principal advantage is he is not (former Defense Secretary) Don Rumsfeld. And that virtue can only be played out so long."
Rowan Scarborough is author of "Rumsfeld's War: The Untold Story of America's Anti-Terrorist Commander," and "Sabotage: America's Enemies Within the CIA."