WASHINGTON — Save the economy. Build fighter jets.
Faced with a national economic crisis and a new president, the defense industry is itself playing defense. Its latest lobbying message: Weapons systems aren't just instruments of national security, they're vital jobs programs.
One big new ad features a boldly soaring bald eagle and declares, "Of course America's economy can take off again. It already has a strong pair of wings."
The ad, recently run in Washington-area newspapers and journals, is sponsored by the Aerospace Industries Association, whose members include the country's top makers of aircraft and their components. And its message is one that many lobbyists and other defense-industry representatives are now emphasizing: Don't even think of cutting our programs — and workers' jobs.
With President Obama intent on winding down the Iraq war and eventually rolling back federal deficits, the industry is worried about bearing the brunt of budget cuts. Just Tuesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that the Pentagon won't be able to "do everything, buy everything" in more austere times. And the White House Web site warns the administration plans a review of major defense programs "in light of current needs."
"There's so much uncertainty in the defense industry with what will happen with the new administration," said Pete Steffes, vice president for government policy with the National Defense Industrial Association, which represents large and small defense firms.
For many in the industry and their supporters in Congress, emphasizing jobs is always a timely argument. "Right now it's particularly potent," said Lawrence J. Korb, a former Pentagon official who is now a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress.
"Our industry is ready and able to lead the way out of the economic crisis," said Fred Downey, a vice president of the Aerospace Industry Association, which says defense and aerospace manufacturers contribute $97 billion in exports a year and 2 million jobs. The message: "Don't hurt this industry" by cutting its programs to pay for stimulating other parts of the economy, he said.
The defense sector spent $148 million lobbying last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, an independent group that monitors influence in Washington. Officials, employees and political action committees from defense companies contributed an additional $24 million to presidential and congressional candidates and political parties during the 2007-08 campaign cycle.
At stake are big chunks of the Defense Department's nearly $700 billion annual budget, which includes nearly $200 billion for weapons and equipment and research and development.
While the government keeps no precise data on private-sector defense jobs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 647,000 people work in industries where at least a fifth of the products are defense-related. Estimates from the defense industry itself run even higher. With the wounded economy shedding half a million jobs a month, members of Congress and their aides say they hear the jobs argument all the time.
"They're trying to get with the program," said Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., referring to the focus on the economy. "It's an extremely smart strategy, and it's very successful."
Among those relying heavily on the jobs argument are defenders of Lockheed-Martin Corp.'s F-22, who want to influence an imminent Obama administration decision on whether to buy more of the stealth fighter jets.
In recent days, 44 senators and 191 House members signed letters to Obama urging him to continue F-22 production. While both letters cited the aircraft's importance to national security, they also said more than 25,000 people work for the program's suppliers in 44 states.
"As we face one of the most trying economic times in recent history, it is critical to preserve existing high-paying, specialized jobs that are critical to our nation's defense," the Senate letter said.
To buttress that message, an ad sponsored by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and Lockheed-Martin has run on Washington-area radio, arguing, "Keeping the F-22 running strong supports economic stability and national security."
In a similar effort, members of Congress wrote Obama last month asking him to start adding 12 Navy ships a year, double the recent rate. Though the letters discussed national security, they also said the U.S. shipbuilding industry employs more than 400,000 people in 47 states and added, "Thousands of jobs would be created in the United States with a renewed commitment to shipbuilding."