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Commentary: St. Louis - and the country - need Boeing's C-17 and F-18 aircraf

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 8, 2009 - Boeing is among St. Louis' largest employers, and many of those jobs are related to the C-17 and F-18 aircraft programs. But these programs are among many weapons programs on the chopping block at the Defense Department. I am deeply concerned about potential cuts to these programs. Just yesterday, I asked President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to ensure they are preserved.

The C-17 and F-18 programs mean jobs and pride in Missouri communities. Public officials, labor leaders, economic organizations and even school systems are rightfully passionate about preserving these programs to protect thousands of jobs and keep St. Louis area communities economically strong.

While I absolutely agree that these Boeing programs are vital to the St. Louis area's economy, I also strongly believe in these programs based on their fiscal and national security merits and have been advocating for them since I first came to the Senate in January 2007.

As someone who has been pounding my fist about government accountability for my entire career and certainly since I came to the Senate, I've fought to ramp up accountability in the Defense Department. In fact, I've regularly grilled Gates and other top defense officials on how they plan to reduce bloated acquisitions programs.

In that spirit, the C-17 and F-18 programs pass my test for fiscal soundness. Let me explain. The Navy currently uses the F-18 aboard its aircraft carriers, but it faces a shortfall of at least 129 aircraft in the coming years. The upshot of that shortage is that we could have as many as four aircraft carriers without any planes at all.

A practical solution to this problem is for DoD to purchase F-18s on a multi-year schedule, which would save taxpayers as much as $1 billion. The baffling proposed alternative to solving the shortfall is to buy the new F-35, which costs almost three times as much as the F-18, is unproven and unready, according to the Government Accountability Office, and offers limited new capability useful to our ongoing and expected future military engagements as compared to the F-18.

Further, if F-18 production comes to an end, the country would be left with only one production line for tactical fighter aircraft. In the case of the C-17, if the line is shut down, the country will be without a single operational production line for a large-bodied military aircraft. Both of these scenarios pose a dangerous risk to our national security and will unacceptably erode the skilled workforce vital to our defense industrial base.

It is also important to remember that our troops rely on these aircraft every day as they fight for us in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the world. We have been flying the wings off our C-17s as we have overused this aircraft in supporting our men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is also the C-17, because of its reliability and advanced technologies, that rushes our heroic war wounded out of combat and into hospitals in the United States.

When I first came to Washington, I wrote to the Defense Department and the Office of Management and Budget to make this case for the C-17 program, asking for the aircraft to be funded in President George W. Bush's budget. That same year, I had a successful amendment to the Defense Authorization bill with Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo, and others that required a Strategic Airlift Study to review the need for more aircraft like the C-17, given increasing global demands.

Last year, I fought for and won passage of an amendment in the Defense Authorization bill to clarify the need for buying more F-18s. In addition to my letter, I recently spoke with President Obama about the C-17 and F-18. Most recently, at two separate hearings of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I asked tough questions about both the C-17 and F-18, helping to establish a strong record to underscore the need for their continued production.

Quite simply, I pressed President Bush when he did not support the C-17, and I will similarly challenge President Obama over his decisions on the C-17 and F-18.

As Missourians, we will continue to join together on a bipartisan basis to send a clear message to President Obama and Secretary Gates that these valuable programs should remain intact. I will continue to be part of the effort to retain these meritorious programs that are needed by the military, provide great value to the taxpayer and are built by proud Missourians.

Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, represents Missouri in the U.S. Senate.

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