The Marietta-built F-22 Raptor is capable of amazing feats.
It can cruise at 1,100 miles an hour, soar to 60,000 feet, and destroy air and ground targets with ease, all while staying virtually undetectable to radar.
Judson Brohmer/U.S. Air Force
The F-22 Raptors cost upwards of $130 million each, and the Defense Department has called for a cap on their production.
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It is a technogeek's dream, a unique blend of speed, stealth and maneuverability designed to make pilots swoon and enemies duck and cover.
The question is: Can the Raptor fight off an even fiercer foe — a budget-conscious Defense Department that wants to cap Raptor production at 187 planes?
In Cobb County, especially, there is keen interest in the answer. Lockheed Martin's giant plant in Marietta assembles the plane, and roughly 2,000 of the facility's 7,000 jobs are tied to its production. Without new funding, the project will start ramping down at the end of 2008 and wrap up by 2011.
Should that happen, the company says, jobs "would be lost."
Lockheed, said Cobb County Chamber of Commerce Chief Operating Officer and Senior Vice President Don Beaver, "is a strategic asset for our country, a treasure for Georgia because of the multi-million-dollar contracts that are shared by vendors throughout the state, and a stalwart in the county since the plant was built. Lockheed's been more than just jobs, they've been part of the fabric of this community forever."
No one's saying the plant is going away, but threats to one of its key products spark concern. Worries over the future of the Raptor are as long-standing as the debate over its need. While no one seems to question the aircraft's military capabilities, there are those who doubt its role in a changed military theater.
The debate has pitted the Pentagon on one side against the Air Force and members of Congress on the other.
Originally, plans called for several hundred Raptors to be built, but over the years the number was whittled amid cost concerns and changing priorities.
In December, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called for Raptor production funding to stop at 187 planes.
Recently, the Air Force suggested 380 would be more like it.
Those who would end Raptor production say America no longer needs the F-22, or at least more of the planes, to defend itself, particularly at a per-plane price that's estimated at $130 million to more than $300 million, depending on whether research and development costs are included. Lockheed says the cost today for an F-22 is $137.6 million.
Gates pointed out that the Raptor — conceived in the late 1980s as a successor to the F-15 — hasn't been a factor in either Iraq or Afghanistan and that its main use is against a "near peer."
The limited risk of a conflict against China or Russia in the near future, he suggested, doesn't justify building more.
U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia both are "big supporters" of continued Raptor production, Isakson said.
"It's very important to the security of the United States," he said
"The planes speak for themselves," he added. "They've proven themselves over and over in the theater. Anybody who looks at the performance sees that the F-22 has met or exceeded every benchmark set for it."
Isakson also noted that there is broad support around the nation for the project. Lockheed said the plane has 1,000 suppliers in 44 states, giving it political clout.
"The economic impact is nationwide," Isakson said. "And it's a big economic generator and important to the state of Georgia."
U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey, whose congressional district includes the Marietta plant, said more Raptors are "required to maintain air dominance and defend our homeland in the coming decades."
Gingrey added, "The U.S. simply cannot maintain its status as a superpower in the skies and protect our airspace if we continue to rely upon an aging fighter force while our adversaries build newer, more capable aircraft. I sincerely hope our national security interests will triumph over budgetary constraints."
Both Isakson and Gingrey said they listen to the Air Force when its leaders say they need more of a certain type of aircraft.
Isakson said he feels "like the future of [the Raptor] is very good."
That might be a bit optimistic, said Richard Aboulafia, aerospace analyst for the Teal Group. A couple more years of F-22 funding and maybe two dozen more Raptors might be more reasonable, he said.
"It could be worse," he offered. "A couple more years is better than nothing."
A proposal by Gates to add four more F-22s for a total of 187 "would delay the beginning of the line closure by two or three months," Lockheed said in an e-mail response to a question about future production. Line closure is now scheduled to start in October. The company said it plans to build 24 F-22s this year.