Workers Face Loss Of Fighter Jet Program

Interactive Timeline: Evolution Of Military Aviation
Andrew Prince/NPR

At Lockheed Martin in Marietta, Ga., where the final assembly of the F-22 stealth fighter takes place, some 2,000 jobs are at stake. Workers were just ending a shift Monday when they heard the news that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has recommended cutting the program from the 2010 Pentagon budget.

"I don't think it's good, you know," said Mark Forbes, a mechanic who works on the F-22. "I think that we need to have an aircraft like that, that nobody else has, you know. It's kind of a low blow to us."

Richard Stroud, an engineer, said he has worked at the plant for 57 years on the F-22 and other defense projects.

"I think it's a huge mistake," he said. "We got to keep our defense up and, you know, be ready for anything, because there's some countries out there — they're just waiting until we let down, and they're going to get us."

Gates recommended that the Pentagon take just four more F-22 stealth fighter jets than it had already contracted for — a total of 187 aircraft. The Pentagon wants to increase spending on the far less expensive F-35 fighter jet. Lockheed Martin makes both aircraft.

Gates said the decision about the F-22 was not a close call.

"First of all, we have fulfilled the program," Gates said. "I mean, it's not like we're killing the F-22. We will have 187 of them, so we are completing the F-22 program."

Perhaps preparing to defend his decision, Gates noted that there is no question that a lot of the budget cuts announced Monday will be controversial.

Lockheed Martin said in a prepared statement that it is assessing the impact on its programs.

Some members of Congress are gearing up for a fight.

"It's a loss of jobs," said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA). "It's 90,000 jobs across 49 states and the United States. Final assembly takes place in Marietta, but parts and software and employees work at 49 states to make the F-22."

About 24,000 people are directly involved in the production of the fighter jet. Gates suggested that a shift to the F-35 would offset most of the potential job losses.

But Isakson says losing any job in this economy doesn't make sense.

"The F-22 has the ability to fly at stealth, at high altitudes, to take out radar and then to launch missiles to attack the targets the military wants to target," Isakson said. "You cannot replace that — we've got to have the F-22 in the 21st century."

The political battle over the F-22 is just beginning. Until then, production of the fighter jets will continue at the Marietta assembly plant until 2011.

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