Blowing hot air under Raptor’s wings


The F-22 Raptor is sex on carbon fiber wings. This is America’s premier air superiority fighter, and it’s a bad, bad monkey. At an F-22 demonstration at the Reno Air Show in September, I nearly passed out from testosterone poisoning.

If you’re at an advertising firm -- say, Keiler & Co. of Farmington, Conn., the agency of record for Lockheed Martin Corp. -- and the product you’re promoting is this sky-shredding death kite, you might expect to knock off early. Boss: So, guys, what should the ad look like? Johnson: Um, how about a big picture of the plane? Boss: Right, good, excellent! I like the cut of your jib, Johnson. You play golf?

Such would be the brief in ordinary times, which these aren’t. The Obama administration has signaled that the Air Force will get no more than the 183 planes already built or on order, the last of which are to be delivered in 2011. Critics argue that the stealth fighter, conceived during the Cold War to go toe-to-toe with Soviet MiGs, is a classic example of Pentagon gold-plating, a vastly expensive and over-capable weapon system that is irrelevant to the current threat. Those critics include Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates.


The decision whether to end the program comes down in April. Ahead of the deadline, Lockheed Martin and its partners have been engaged in a carpet-bombing ad campaign in support of the F-22.

The ordnance of choice? Jobs.

Since January, the F-22’s marketing blitz -- including full-page national newspaper ads and even billboards in the Washington Metro stations -- has reimagined the plane not as a vital war-fighting system but as a supersonic stimulus program. Lockheed Martin claims 95,000 jobs are at stake in 44 states (figures that are at the very least debatable).

“The defense industry has always tried to avoid directly invoking jobs at stake in the past because they didn’t want to be seen as welfare queens,” says Ivan Eland, a defense analyst for the Independent Institute and a critic of the F-22 program. “They’re scared the usual buttonholing of congressmen won’t work,” Eland says.

Like Justice Potter Stewart, I know obscenity when I see it and these ads are certainly close enough. Yes, jobs are important, but there’s something fundamentally indecent about holding jobs hostage to a weapons procurement program of highly dubious value, something even cruel about exploiting an economic crisis to pry more money out of the debt-strapped government.

Is this any way to run a Pentagon? Shouldn’t the standard of any such weapons procurement be, you know, the defense of the nation?

Meanwhile, the F-22 itself disappears from these ads to make room for industrial imagery that is practically Bolshevik.

Consider the nearly full-page ad in last week’s Washington Post. The plane is nowhere to be seen; instead, there’s an image of a factory worker jabbing at a several-ton ingot of glowing steel. “Steel workers in Chicago,” the copy reads. “95,000 jobs across America. All working to build the F-22 Raptor.”

The photo was taken at A. Finkl & Sons Co., a supplier of forging and tooling die steels. Now, I’m no aeronautical engineer, but I’d be surprised if much of the company’s steel is on board the composite-bodied F-22. Perhaps some of Finkl’s steel goes into a machine that makes a part for the F-22, but by that logic, Wrigley is a defense contractor because pilots chew gum.

The ad featuring A. Finkl is a beautifully crafted, and crafty, bit of message shaping. Beyond the obvious take-away -- support the F-22 or pink-slip 95,000 workers -- the ad exploits the way Americans love to think of themselves: blue-collar, broad-shouldered hammer swingers. There is something so resolutely worthy about steel, whereas the virtues of carbon composites might be harder to leverage.

Another ad comes to us from Niles, Ohio, where a worker at RTI International Metals Inc. grinds away on a slab of titanium. The gloves, the leather apron, the face shield. The point is fairly made. The F-22 isn’t about supporting some vast and remorseless defense contractor. Heavens no. A vote for the F-22 is a vote for high school shop class.

Come on. This is one of the most technologically advanced machines in the world. If there were any honesty to these ads, they would feature computer programmers pounding out several million lines of code, without which the F-22 is the world’s most aerodynamic lawn ornament.