As the sun sets on the Bush administration, Pentagon acquisition chief John Young and deputy defense secretary Gordon England are running a campaign against the F-22. They're risking the wrath of powerful (and irascible) leaders on Capitol Hill, invoking the letter, but clearly not the intention, of a law that was written so that the next administration, rather than this one, could decide whether the fighter has a future.
The question is why they are doing it - or, more accurately, why they think it's so important to do it now.
In testimony and in a briefing to reporters, Young has laid out a case against building more F-22s. It is a better use of money, he has argued, to fix problems with the F-22s already on order, and to upgrade as many aircraft in the force as possible, than to extend the production line.
But that's not the issue, for several reasons.
The argument for extending the F-22 line is strategic, not concerned directly with the execution of the program, and has two parts.
One of them is whether 183 aircraft is the right number. The USAF has always disagreed with this, arguing that the resulting front-line force is too small for the sort of major campaign that it envisages - and the F-22 is definitely a major-campaign asset - and hard to sustain.
The other strategic argument is that the USAF should not stop building the F-22 until the F-35 is safely established on a trajectory that will get it into service on time.
Congress clearly didn't want these questions to be answered by this administration, but by the next, because the next administration will deal with its consequences. After all, the project has been under way for 22 years and the jets will be in service for at least another 20 years, so why is it so crucial to accelerate the final shutdown-or-not decision by six months?
Also, if the F-22 is such a bad deal, why were the Pentagon leaders not forthright about it earlier? The Government Accountability Office published a report in March that the F-22 was experiencing maintainability problems (and the GAO's published reports usually lag behind the event) and stealth-related issues had been reported by the Air Force itself. The FY2009 budget made it clear that the full exploitation of the fighter's promised capabilities was a long way off in both years and dollars.
So there is very little in Young's criticism that we didn't know about. And with the sackings of USAF Secretary Michael Wynne and chief of staff Gen. Michael Moseley, there's been nothing to impede such criticism since June.
Why the rush? Are Wynne and England worried that the new administration, under time pressure, will be buffaloed into perpetuating a bad deal? It could be argued that the USAF was deliberately delaying the F-22 improvement plans on paper, to make the airplane look less expensive than it was: "Buy now, fix later", as one analyst puts it.
But the clearest difference between what Young and England want to do, and what Congress wants to do, is this: the DoD leaders' plan eliminates the F-22 before the new administration arrives.
With the F-22 out of the way, the F-35 is the only USAF fighter available, and needed urgently. And Young and England have also used the transition period to bless what looks like a sweetheart F-35 deal for Norway (it's a better deal than the US taxpayer can get today).
This points to an overarching goal: Lock the Obama administration into the JSF program by committing to allies and eliminating alternatives, making the project proof not only against termination, but even restructuring.
Whether it is a smart idea to do this when under 2 per cent of flight testing has been carried out, before the tricky and critical STOVL tests, and when the cost increases resulting from a one-year slip have not been publicly quantified, is a good question.