While Washington prepares to inject Maryland with billions in new stimulus projects on one hand, it's contemplating turning off a Maryland job machine with another.
The clock strikes midnight on March 1 for Lockheed Martin's F-22 Raptor, a "stealth" jet fighter that has been in development for more than a decade and in production since 2003.
President Barack Obama has to decide by then whether to extend Raptor purchases beyond the 183 already built or under contract. A "no" would mean work would start to wind down next year and the last F-22 would roll out of Lockheed's Marietta, Ga., plant in 2011.
Raptor business stretches from machining shops such as Ridge Engineering in Hampstead to radar assembly at Northrop Grumman in Linthicum to Lockheed's headquarters in Bethesda. Lockheed says the project accounts for 625 Maryland jobs, mostly in Linthicum, plus hundreds of "spinoff" jobs at restaurants and stores patronized by F-22 workers.
"With rising unemployment, we need to make sure that we're not making a knee-jerk reaction and we keep this program going strong," says Keith Scott, president of the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce and one of legions of business leaders and politicians urging an extension.
Lockheed and Northrop have switched on the publicity afterburners, scheduling a news conference in Linthicum this morning at which reporters can "fly" an F-22 simulator and find out why the plane is "a cornerstone of the country's defense strategy for the next 30 years."
The Raptor, at $140 million per plane, needs all the advertising it can get.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is against buying more. The Pentagon "has not demonstrated the need or value for making further investments" in the plane, the Government Accountability Office found three years ago. The first 100 F-22s don't perform up to requirements and need $8 billion in upgrades, the government's chief weapons buyer reported in November.
"The F-22 is a classic example of everything that's wrong" with Pentagon purchases, says Winslow T. Wheeler, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information and longtime Raptor critic. "If Secretary Gates decides to go ahead and build more of these things, it will demonstrate very clearly that business as usual is alive and very well in Obama's Pentagon."
The F-22's main problem is that it was built to fight an enemy that no longer exists. The low-tech warfare waged against the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq doesn't bring much call for jet-propelled dogfights at 40,000 feet.
"The reality is, we are fighting two wars ... and the F-22 has not performed a single mission in either theater," Gates told Congress recently.
So we don't need it. It doesn't work well. It diverts dollars that could be used to better support troops on the ground. There is no money for new Raptors in the Pentagon's budget. What are its chances?
"I would have bet heavily against it three or four months ago, but now I think it's maybe 50-50," Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, told CongressDaily last week.
Backers are portraying the F-22 as militarily relevant, saying missions could include reconnaissance, intelligence, ground attack and other roles outside air-to-air combat. Expertise gained making advanced F-22 radars will help Northrop Grumman make even better future systems for other planes and ships, says John C. Johnson, general manager of the company's Aerospace Systems Division.
In coming decades, the United States again will have enemies brandishing advanced fighters, Lockheed argues.
"China and Russia and potentially other countries are developing stealth, twin-engine, high-altitude aircraft that, frankly, are going to be superior to conventional fighters we have today," says Lockheed spokesman Rob Fuller. "It's incumbent upon our nation to keep that fighter edge."
But selling the F-22 as fiscal stimulus seems to be working better than emphasizing its fighting capabilities. The project takes 25,000 workers at 1,000 suppliers in 44 states, Lockheed says, which is why it's hard to find anybody in Congress against it.
Wheeler claims the F-22 won't work well even as an economic boost. Unlike the improved roads and electricity lines that Obama's $787 billion stimulus package will buy, a completed F-22 sitting in a hangar won't help the wider economy, he says.
But even he expects some new planes to be approved. The Obama administration could decide it needs the F-22 in the fight against unemployment and recession.