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You can't kill F-22, Georgians tell Gates

Should military spending be seen as a 'jobs program'?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 8, 2009

A 30-year veteran of the Lockheed-Martin plant that makes the F-22 jet, Jeff Goen says, 'I don't think the President is looking at exactly how important the [F-22] is to the economy and national security.'

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor

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Marietta, Ga.

When it came time to name the world's first fifth-generation jet fighter, the mechanics who assemble the F-22A at Lockheed-Martin's Marietta plant got the honors.

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Their pick? "The Raptor." "The baddest bird in the sky," says Jeff Goen, a 30-year employee and local machinists union president.

Now that the Pentagon has said it will cap production of America's top-of-the-line fighter at 187 aircraft, plane-builders – many of them unionized and staunch Democrats – are "mad as hell," Mr. Goen says.

To be sure, the looming debate in Congress will be fundamental to the nation's defense: Is a full fleet of what's being touted as the world's premier jet fighter really necessary in a world of low-level insurgent wars and unmanned drones – a world where the Raptor has yet to see combat?

At the core of the opposition to the Pentagon's new marching orders is an argument over whether the military-industrial complex – in the midst of a recession – should be considered part of a job stimulus plan.

The coming congressional debate over the F-22's future also will test the waning power of Southern politicians to defend the military status quo. And it's likely to have an impact on nearly 100,000 workers across the US, among them the 2,000 plane-builders at the sprawling Lockheed-Martin plant here on the edge of Dobbins Air Force Base.

"This is not a Georgia issue, but a national issue," says US Sen. Johnny Isakson (R) of Georgia, who has vowed to fight Defense Secretary Robert Gates's plan. "At a time when we need employment and we're losing jobs, the last thing we need to do is force layoffs. And from the standpoint of the plane itself, it's a national security issue. This airplane was designed to meet the threats of the 21st century."

In a way, this political dogfight is what critics call a classic example of the "Iron Triangle" in defense procurement – the manufacturer (including its unions), the military service, and lawmakers – working together to promote an expensive project in terms of "national security." And it's no coincidence that parts of the F-22 are built in more than 40 states, creating still more allies among legislators, chambers of commerce, and the local news media.

Designed as a successor to the F-15A, the F-22 stealth fighter doubles as a bomber. At a cost of $140 million per plane, it's designed to establish and maintain air superiority in any conflict.

But the question Mr. Gates and the White House are confronting is whether the plane represents overkill. While ordering only four more F-22s, rather than the 60 additional fighters the Air Force wants, Gates vowed instead to order 500 more of the new F-35 fighter – a lighter, cheaper machine also built by Lockheed-Martin.

(On PBS's "NewsHour" Tuesday, Gates said the F-35, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, "has 10- to 15-year newer technology, [and] has some capabilities that the F-22 doesn't have.")

In many ways, says retired Air Force Col. P. J. Crowley of the Center for American Progress, Gates is trying to finish the job that his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, started before 9/11: a pragmatic reordering of the military to address needs on the ground today versus over-focusing on past or future threats. A tertiary motivation is breaking down some of the political dominance of companies like Lockheed-Martin, which pulls in more than $30 billion a year, primarily from government contracts.