The F-22 stealth fighter known as the Raptor costs $250 million to build, and nearly $50,000 an hour to fly. The last of the jets have been ordered. However, Congress is budgeting for more planes, and that has prompted President Obama to issue his first veto threat.
Nearly $2 billion was added to the defense spending bill being debated on the Senate floor for seven F-22 jets that both the Pentagon and the Obama administration have deemed unnecessary.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) led the push to add that funding. "To come up here and say that, well, DOD didn't request any F-22s and therefore we're to salute and go marching on, is something we've never done," Chambliss says.
Lockheed Martin makes the F-22, and it has spent millions of dollars lobbying lawmakers. It also has subcontracted hundreds of suppliers in almost every state.
Chambliss says ending the F-22 production would be felt nationwide: "95,000 good-paying jobs across America — several thousand of those jobs are in my home state."
Leading the fight against the F-22 jets is the man who lost to Obama last November. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) says he understands that many workers' jobs are at stake: "Our sympathy is with them. We will do everything we can to provide job opportunities, including in the defense industries across this country. But we cannot argue that we should spend taxpayers' dollars for weapons systems simply to create or keep jobs."
Besides, McCain says,"this plane has never been flown over Iraq or Afghanistan — it's never been part of the two wars that we've been in."
And, as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) notes, even President Bush was unable to stop production of the F-22. "Two administrations now have made an effort to end the F-22 line," Levin says. "This is not a partisan issue; this is a Republican and a Democratic administration that have made this effort."
Defense officials favor a new plane — the F-35 joint strike fighter — and have plans to build more than 2,000 of them. It's all part of Defense Secretary Robert Gates' push to restructure the military. But Congress is rarely inclined to kill a big weapons program.
"Secretary Gates has a huge fight on his hands," says Winslow Wheeler, an independent defense analyst. "It's very unclear to me who's going to win this — I'm not even confident that the president and Gates can get the one-third plus one votes in the Senate they need to sustain a veto."
A key test of support for the president could come as early as Wednesday. The Senate is set to vote on an amendment sponsored by McCain and Levin that removes the funding for more F-22 jets. However, even those senators concede that the votes may not be there to do that.