Some of the nation's largest defense contractors, labor unions and trade groups are banding together to argue that the Obama administration is putting 100,000 or more jobs at risk by proposing deep cuts in weapons programs.
The defense industry and its supporters argue that the proposals by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates will increase unemployment during a historic economic crisis. Why, they ask, would President Obama push hundreds of billions in stimulus spending to create jobs only to propose weapons cuts that would eliminate tens of thousands of them?
"It doesn't make sense that our government is looking at trying to save or create jobs at the same time it's talking about cutting something like this," said Jeff Goen, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers chapter in Marietta, Ga., where Lockheed Martin does final assembly on the F-22 Raptor fighter jet, which is slated to be cut.
Lockheed and other contractors predict that up to 95,000 direct and indirect jobs are at risk because of Gates's plan to halt production of the F-22, which is built and assembled across 48 states but which has never been used in combat. Boeing says thousands more positions could be lost if the Pentagon halts production on other programs such as the C-17 cargo plane, which is assembled at a 5,000-worker plant in Long Beach, Calif.
The clash poses a nettlesome political challenge for Obama, who relied heavily on Democratic union support during his presidential campaign but who is backing the ambitious efforts of his GOP defense secretary to remake the Pentagon budget. Opposition on Capitol Hill is being led by Republicans who hope to enlist the support of union-friendly Democrats to quash many of the proposed cuts.
Gates and other Obama administration officials argue that job-loss fears are overstated, and note that the Pentagon's overall budget would increase by $20 billion, to $534 billion, under the plan released this month. Proclaiming the need to "reshape the priorities of America's defense establishment," Gates called for halting or cutting a host of programs that have been plagued by delays, cost overruns or performance problems, including the F-22, the C-17, a fleet of new presidential helicopters and the Future Combat Systems program.
But Gates and his generals have also tailored the budget to include growth in other programs that may lower the intensity of opposition, and has successfully brought Air Force generals in line on cutting back the F-22 and other programs that the service has historically championed. Although Maine would lose some jobs with the shuttering of the F-22 program, for example, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) praised Gates for planning to build three DDG-1000 destroyers at General Dynamics' Bath Iron Works.
"A lot of people are ascribing real cleverness to Gates in the way he has structured this," said Loren B. Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute think tank. "He has spread things out in a way aimed at dividing and weakening opposition."
The approach has already muffled criticism from Lockheed, the nation's largest defense contractor. The Bethesda-based company would gain from an expanded order for F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters that would help make up for the end of production on the F-22. Bruce Tanner, Lockheed's chief financial officer, told Wall Street investors last week that, on the F-22 at least, the company has accepted defeat.
"We've had our chance to lobby this matter," Tanner said.
The defense sector is a major Washington powerbroker, giving nearly $26 million to congressional candidates last year and spending $150 million on lobbying, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Even before Gates's final proposal came out, the machinists' union joined forces with Lockheed, Boeing and 11 other contractors to produce a slick Web site and ad campaign asserting that the F-22 program "provides jobs, a paycheck and economic security." Boeing is running full-color newspaper ads extolling the virtues of the C-17, which Obama singles out for praise on the White House Web site, even though it is one of the biggest targets on Gates's list.
In another ad campaign, the Aerospace Industries Association proclaimed: "Aerospace and defense is a powerful economic engine. We must keep the industry strong." Marion Blakey, the group's president and CEO, said the employment issue is "a compelling argument. . . . These are high-paying jobs."
The machinists, meanwhile, are targeting Democratic lawmakers in areas with defense-related jobs, union officials said. The group's 700,000 active and retired members will be asked to bombard lawmakers with phone calls, e-mails and letters. "It's going to be about jobs at the end of the day, but not in a selfish way," said Rich Michalski, the union's political director.
The criticism of Gates on Capitol Hill has been led by fellow Republicans, most of whom opposed Obama's stimulus plan but contend that defense spending is different. "At a time of economic difficulty, it makes no sense to take a strategically important weapons system and cap it and cost 95,000 jobs in a relatively short period of time," said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.).
Key Democrats, including Sen. Carl Levin (Mich.) and Rep. Ike Skelton (Mo.), the chairmen of the armed services committees, have generally withheld judgment on Gates's proposals so far.
Gates told reporters this month that the changes will help create some jobs. He pointed to the F-22 as an example, saying that while 24,000 people are directly employed on that project, the F-35 already employs 38,000 and is projected to employ 84,000 by 2011.
"We cannot be oblivious to the consequences of these decisions," Gates said. "But nonetheless, we have to make them as a whole in terms of what's in the best interest of the country."