One of Washington's biggest controversies this week is the new military budget proposed by the Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The media seems confused over whether the new defense budget is an increase or decrease over last year (it's a small increase), but facts aside, charges and counter-charges are flying about the Obama administration's commitment to defending the nation.

One unmentioned issue underlying much of the debate, however, is the degree to which certain parts of the country depend on military spending for economic growth -- and how that's influencing the debate over the military budget.

Case in point: Georgia. One of the key provisions of the Pentagon's proposed budget is to freeze production of the F-22 Raptor fighter jet -- a plane dreamed up during the Cold War era (1981) but not put into production until 2003.

Secretary Gates has never been a big fan of the F-22, thinking it was largely irrelevant to the kind of wars the U.S. finds itself in today. As Time reported last year:
"The reality is we are fighting two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the F-22 has not performed a single mission in either theater," Gates said.
Gates goes on to point out that the purpose of the F-22 is for battle with "near-peer" nations -- i.e., superpowers as strong as the U.S. Since the only one on the horizon right now is China -- a country no one is suggesting we go to war with -- Gates concluded that the 183 F-22s the U.S. already has in the pipeline is "reasonable."

Today, Gates thinks it's especially "reasonable" to stop building more F-22s in a deep recession, given that price tag of each plane is about $361 million each [pdf] (2006 dollars).

But Georgia Republican Senators Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson -- both staunch opponents of the Obama stimulus and government spending in general -- don't see it that way. In a joint statement released on Monday, Chambliss and Isakson railed at Gates' decision with harsh words like these (this one from Chambliss):
I am extremely disappointed in this decision by the Obama administration. America has maintained air dominance in every conflict since the Korean War, and now this administration is giving that advantage up and is willing to sacrifice the lives of American military men and women for the sake of domestic programs favored by President Obama.
Chambliss offers no plausible argument about why and where the U.S. needs "air dominance," nor why the current fleet of over 180 F-22s -- in addition to other air fighters -- is not enough to secure the country.

A key point: The F-22 is manufactured at Lockheed Martin's defense plant in Marietta, Georgia. Which is why the second part of the statement, from Sen. Isakson, may get closer to the real reason for the Georgia senators' vitriol:
[I]it is unacceptable that this administration wants to eliminate 2,000 jobs in Marietta and potentially 95,000 jobs nationwide at a time when unemployment rates are rising across the country.
But this statement raises a host of questions: If more F-22's aren't necessary militarily, how is production of them for the sake of jobs any different than the "make-work" WPA-type employment from government spending that conservatives so viciously criticize?

And further: If the goal is to be fiscally prudent, shouldn't the question be "what else could we do to put people to work and strengthen the country with $62 billion dollars" -- the cost of the F-22 program, according to the U.S. Air Force [pdf].

For example, ever since Katrina advocates have been pushing for a Gulf Coast Civic Works program that -- for $3.9 billion, just over the cost of 10 F-22 planes -- could put 100,000 people to work, paying a living wage to rebuild schools and neighborhoods.

Could Sens. Chambliss and Isakson get behind that?

ADDED NOTE: As I've discussed before, there's a long economic debate about the merits of Military Keynesianism -- the idea that massive government spending in the military can help forestall economic downturns, and even drive growth. The point here is that it runs counter to everything else the Republicans have been telling us over the last six months.