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.
Mr. Cowley says the F-22 is in some ways antithetical to the new challenges. In recent conflicts, such heavy weaponry tends to undermine local civilian governments by its sheer power – especially reports of civilians being struck by 500-pound bombs dropped from great altitudes. Instead, Gates vows to beef up Special Forces units, which have been widely credited with successfully confronting insurgent resistance.
In many ways, Gates's gambit is a test of congressional power. If successful on most fronts, especially on the F-22, this year's proposal to Congress could clear the battlefield for deeper cuts in 2011.
"The only clear strategy [behind Gates's proposal] is to pay for the war that's in front of you and mortgage future threats in the hope that those are problems you don't have to face" says James Jay Carafano, a defense expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington "Not that defense is a jobs program ... but in an economy when you want to preserve high-paying union jobs, this [decision] is irrational. It's not a stimulus package, it's an unemployment package."
Gates acknowledges that "direct employment of the F-22 will go from about 24,000 this year to about 11,000 in 2011," as he told "NewsHour." But, he said, "Joint Strike Fighter [F-35 production] will go from 38,000 people working this year to 82,000 people that work on that plane in direct support in 2011. So there are puts and takes."
In any case, members of Congress here face a rocky time trying to save the F-22 and its jobs in Marietta. Lockheed-Martin is in somewhat of a bind. Gates has promised to beef up the order for F-35s, and the company builds both advanced fighters.
At the same time, Georgia's congressional delegation is a shadow of what it was when former Sen. Sam Nunn chaired the Armed Services Committee. The state has lost several installations in recent base-closing orders.
The go-to guy for saving the plane is likely to be Senator Isakson, who helped derail an earlier proposal by Gates to kill the F-22 program.
Though he has little committee clout, Isakson is known as a frank and trustworthy coalition-builder. His tactic likely will be to target union-state Democrats and convince them that the F-22 is a "shovel-ready" jobs program and a necessary deterrent. Along with fellow Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R), who sits on the Armed Services Committee, and possibly Rep. Sanford Bishop Jr. (D), who is the closest Georgia has to an inside line to President Obama, Isakson has at least the seeds of a coalition to build on.
Also at stake could be the impact of the decision on stalwart union workers, who helped to put Obama over the top in last year's presidential election.
Goen, the union boss, says job losses are inevitable at the already below-capacity Marietta plant. While Gates' comments seemed to indicate that F-35 production could ramp up immediately, the current plan is for the assembly line to start in 2014, a potential four-year gap in which Lockheed-Martin, the state's 11th-largest employer, would struggle to find jobs for idled F-22 builders, Goen says.
"We are in a bad fix in this country," he says. "We have an opportunity to continue the work here to help the economy and we're throwing it out the window."