Defense by Numbers

More clarity needed on F-22 unemployment stats

The Washington Post today reports that contractors, labor unions, and trade groups claim cuts in federal weapons programs may put up to 100,000 jobs at risk. But reporter Dan Eggen lays out seemingly competing numbers—from the defense department and from the defense industry (lumped in here are contractors, trade and union groups)—about job losses largely related to the production of the expensive and as-yet-unused F-22 fighter jet, without weighing in on how, or whether, the numbers match up.

The story leads with the industry argument:

The defense industry and its supporters argue that the proposals by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates will increase unemployment during a historic economic crisis. Why, they ask, would President Obama push hundreds of billions in stimulus spending to create jobs only to propose weapons cuts that would eliminate tens of thousands of them?

Eggen then writes that defense contractors estimate that “up to 95,000 direct and indirect jobs are at risk because of Gates’s plan to halt production of the F-22.” And Boeing “says thousands more positions could be lost if the Pentagon halts production on other programs such as the C-17 cargo plane, which is assembled at a 5,000-worker plant in Long Beach, Calif.”

But at the end of the article, Eggen writes: “Gates told reporters this month that the changes will help create some jobs. He pointed to the F-22 as an example, saying that while 24,000 people are directly employed on that project, the F-35 already employs 38,000 and is projected to employ 84,000 by 2011.”

So which is it? Don’t ask the Post: the article neither compares the two claims nor draws a comprehensible connection between them. In fact, the story’s headline, “Plan to Cut Weapons Programs Disputed,” tells you pretty much exactly what this article is about: it’s a story about the dispute, not about the facts behind the dispute. There is, in other words, little attempt to assess where the facts lie. And while there is context about the political maneuvering surrounding the defense weapons programs (read: lobbying power), there is none that fleshes out the employment numbers that so prominently figure at the center of the debate.

If you do Gates’ math, 46,000 more workers are projected to be employed by the ramped-up F-35 program, more than enough to absorb the 24,000 people who are directly employed to make F-22s. But Gates offers no explanation for the 75,000 or so indirect jobs—sub-suppliers that help provide the intermediate goods needed to build F-22 parts—that Lockheed says will be at risk from ceasing production of the F-22; and neither does Eggen.

And really, Lockheed’s large figure is a bit misleading. For one, it’s clear that 95,000 defense-related workers won’t actually lose their jobs, because even in smaller chunks, other programs will pick up at least some of the slack. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said the same thing Sunday, writing about jobs at Lockheed’s plant in Marietta, Georgia, which completes final assembly on the F-22. It quotes both of Georgia’s senators, Sen. Johnny Isakson and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (who has been raising hell about the F-22 cuts), as saying that the 2,000 employees in Marietta who assemble F-22s will maintain their jobs, “with or without the plane.” (Same with this Lockheed plant in Meridian, Mississippi.) Additionally, it’s useful to remember that none of this is going to happen immediately: the F-22 program is slated to continue until 2012, by which point the expanded F-35 program is expected to have shifted into full gear.

Again: the F-22 program is slated to continue until 2012. And even if the finite order from the government limits its output, the future end date nonetheless deflates somewhat the “we can’t be cutting more jobs in this economy” argument that the trade groups have so vigorously proffered.

Now, that doesn’t mean that other plants won’t incur job losses. (Boeing, whose C-17 cargo plane is likely on the way out, looks like it might suffer more than Lockheed.) But if other programs do expand, as expected, to employ the F-22 workers, the bigger unknown in this work force may become the number of indirect jobs that will be lost, something that is largely unaddressed by both sides.

In focusing on the opposing positions between Gates and the defense unions (and their respective statistics), the Post story misses a chance to provide context for and a more detailed explanation of the numbers that are being so prominently tossed around in this debate. And that makes it less than useful.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.