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Stimulating the Economy With the F-22

New Lobby Tack Stresses Plane’s Economic Benefits

With the economy in a nose dive, backers of the Air Force’s F-22 fighter plane have refined their lobbying strategy to argue that buying one of the costliest Pentagon aircraft ever built will give the country a lift.

“Eliminating the $12 billion in economic activity and thousands of American jobs tied to F-22 production simply doesn’t make sense,” said a letter sent to President Barack Obama by a bipartisan group of 44 Senators, many whose states have F-22 contractors and vendors.

Nearly 200 House lawmakers sent a similar letter.

Loren Thompson, president of the Lexington Institute, a think tank with ties to defense contractors, said the F-22 directly and indirectly generates 100,000 jobs — it might be time to ask if weapons spending is good for the economy.

“It sounds Orwellian,” Thompson said. “Liberals don’t want an economy driven by war production, and conservatives don’t want federal spending to distort market forces. On the other hand, we all want to be defended, and it’s inevitable that a $500 billion defense budget will have some impact on the economy.”

Winslow Wheeler, an analyst with the nonpartisan Center for Defense Information, dismisses the F-22 jobs argument as “pure politics and faddism” and said most Pentagon spending for the plane pays for materials, equipment and facilities — not workers.

“If the economy were doing great it would be something else,” Wheeler said, noting that the F-22 ads that ran last year played up the “unconventional threats” facing the U.S.

Designed in the1980s to combat Soviet Union fighters, the Air Force plane has long been a flash point over the rationale for developing expensive weapons.

The Air Force estimates that the planes cost about $142 million apiece; when development expenses are added, the price tag soars to more than $350 million per plane.

The Air Force will build about 20 planes this year, primarily at Lockheed Martin plants in Texas and Georgia, with costs estimated at $4 billion. By the end of 2010, the Air Force will have a fleet of 183 planes.

But future production is uncertain, with manufacturing lines due to shut down at the end of 2010.

The Air Force has pushed to extend production, saying at least 60 more aircraft are needed. One scenario would have the Air Force build 20 annually for three years after 2010, until the Air Force and Navy’s next-generation Joint Strike Fighter, also built by Lockheed Martin, enters production in 2014.

Obama, who has promised to cut weapons spending, will soon face a test of that pledge. In the 2009 Defense spending bill, Congress approved $383 million for materials and equipment to keep F-22 production going beyond 2010, but left it up to the new administration to decide by March 1 whether to spend it.

The deadline has led to the latest frenzy of lobbying efforts by the planes’ backers, who’ve won tens of billions of dollars over the past two and half decades by arguing the aircraft is vital to national security.

Supporters, however, say the economic argument now has more resonance, especially with fresh Democratic majorities and a Democrat in the White House.

A coalition of F-22 backers, including contractors Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Pratt & Whitney and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, have been taking out ads in newspapers, touting continuing production.

“As a new day dawns for America, continuing F-22 production is a decision that in the short-term protects our security in the long-term — to help keep America safe and prosperous,” stated one recent full-page ad that ran in several newspapers, including Roll Call.

Sam Grizzle, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin, the lead F-22 contractor, said the defense giant does not discuss its lobbying efforts.

Michael Dunn, president of the Air Force Association, said Lockheed Martin is at the forefront of focusing on the F-22’s jobs impact. A former Air Force general and fighter pilot, Dunn calls it astounding that national security concerns are not center stage, but he said the move makes political sense.

Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), whose suburban Atlanta district is home to 2,500 F-22 jobs at a Lockheed Martin plant, still believes the strongest argument for building planes is keeping the United States safe as Russia and China develop similar fighters. But, Gingrey said, with thousands of jobs disappearing each week, “naturally, you want to say you have thousands of jobs at stake” in continuing the F-22.

Aerospace Industries Association, Vice President for National Security Fred Downey said companies such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing are part of a healthy aerospace economic sector that’s expected to generate $207 billion in sales this year. “Do not start robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Downey said of ending F-22 production to fund other priorities.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who along with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a longtime Boeing backer, rounded up Senate signatures for the letter to Obama, told Defense Secretary Robert Gates at a hearing last week that to “truly stimulate” the economy there should be more defense spending.

Pressed by lawmakers, Gates declined to wade into the F-22 debate and noted that he had hoped he would not have to weigh in at all.

“As I focused on the wars these past two years, I ended up toward the end of last year punting a number of procurement decisions that, I believed, would be more appropriately handled by my successor and a new administration,” Gates said. “As luck would have it, I am now the receiver of those punts. And in this game, there are no fair catches.”

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