Defense 'overhaul' might affect Md.

Plan to retool military puts jobs in the mix

April 07, 2009|By David Wood | David Wood,david.wood@baltsun.com

WASHINGTON - Streamlining and restructuring military spending for conflicts like Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates proposed on Monday adding special force troops, cyber-war capabilities, theater missile defense systems to protect troops and unmanned aerial vehicles while slashing some big-war, big-ticket programs such as the supersonic stealth F-22 fighter made by Lockheed Martin of Bethesda.

The proposed cancellation of the F-22 production line, which had long been expected, potentially threatens about 625 jobs in Maryland at Lockheed Martin and some subcontractors, according to Lockheed.

Under Gates' proposed budget, the Pentagon would cap production of the fighters, which cost about $140 million each, at 187. Production of the last aircraft would continue through the end of 2011.

At the same time, Gates proposed accelerating production of another Lockheed Martin aircraft, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a potentially huge, long-term program to build some 2,443 fighters.

Lockheed had argued for continuing production of the F-22 on military and economic grounds, asserting in a radio ad that buying more of the sophisticated fighters meant "not only security dominance in the air but ensuring economic stability on the ground."

According to Lockheed, the $65 billion F-22 program "directly and indirectly" provided 95,000 jobs across 44 states.

While the F-22 has never been used in Afghanistan, advocates argued that it would be needed to operate against high-tech air threats of potential future opponents such as China or Russia. Gates firmly rejected that idea, arguing that "every defense dollar spent to overinsure against a remote or diminishing risk ... is a dollar not available to take care of our people, reset the force [and] win the wars we are in."

Asked about the economic impact of canceling large weapons programs, Gates acknowledged he is "concerned about the possibility that his decisions will have an impact on individual companies and workers around the country."

But he insisted that defense spending decisions must be made "in terms of what's in the best interests of the country."

In the case of the F-22, which he said directly employs about 24,000 workers, production will continue at a declining rate through 2011, with total employment on the F-22 line dropping to about 19,000 in 2010 and about 13,000 in 2011.

Gates told reporters that production of Lockheed Martin's Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35, will be increased, with employment on that production line rising from a current level of 38,000 to 82,000 by 2011. Lockheed Martin is prime contractor for the F-35, and a spokesman said that the project directly employs 1,000 in Maryland.

Defense spending experts have long argued that stimulating the economy through military spending is extremely inefficient.

"It's a very expensive way to create jobs - pretty much any other kind of government spending will create more jobs," said William Hartung, a defense budget expert at the nonpartisan New America Foundation in Washington.

At a Pentagon briefing, Gates emphasized that the proposed $534 billion defense budget for 2010 was a "fundamental overhaul" intended to "reshape" the nation's military priorities rather than simple tinkering to fit existing programs into a budget top line.

Among his other actions: slowing production of new aircraft carriers, canceling production of the C-17 transport plane, increasing production of unmanned aircraft and helicopters, and recruiting 2,800 new special operations commandos.

On Capitol Hill, where the F-22 and other costly weapons programs have fueled years of political squabbles, Gates' proposals were met with some skepticism, suggesting that months of legislative wrangling lie ahead.

Ike Skelton, the veteran Missouri Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, acknowledged Gates' ideas coolly.

"The buck stops with Congress," Skelton said in a statement, reminding the Pentagon that Congress alone will decide "whether to support these proposals."

Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, plays a major role in other weapons systems that Gates endorsed for increases, including the F-18 fighter, the littoral combat ship and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, a component of ground-based missile defense systems.

Defense contract spending looms large in Maryland, which last year landed $15.6 billion spread over 23,764 separate large and small contracts.

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