UPDATED: Mattis Says: Trump “Has In No Way Shown A Lack Of Support For The F-35 Program”
WASHINGTON: President-elect Donald Trump said more than 144 characters about the F-35 program today at his first press conference since being elected president, and Lockheed Martin appeared to have had little reason to be happy. But there are other interpretations that can be offered of his comments. This is what Trump said:
“I’m very much involved with the generals and admirals on the airplane, the F-35, you’ve been reading about it. And it’s way, way behind schedule and many, many billions of dollars over budget. I don’t like that. And the admirals have been fantastic, the generals have been fantastic. I’ve really gotten to know them well,” Trump said in his usual disjointed fashion. “And we’re going to do some big things on the F-35 program, and perhaps the F-18 program. And we’re going to get those costs way down and we’re going to get the plane to be even better. And we’re going to have some competition and it’s going to be a beautiful thing.”
So, first you get the F-35 is way behind schedule — true — and “many, many billions of dollars over budget” — true. Then you get this comment about doing “big things” on the F-35. And he throws in mention of the F-18. Now any reasonable and rational person who doesn’t work for Boeing knows that the F-35 is a much superior aircraft for the next 30 years — just ask the pilots who have flown both. This seems to fit with Trump’s penchant for making lots of often confusing and sensational noise while negotiating a deal, something he glories in detailing in his best-seller, the ghost-written Art of the Deal:
“I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing to get what I’m after. Sometimes I settle for less than I sought, but in most cases I still end up with what I want,”Trump says in the book.
So we go from the noise to the details and the context. When Trump — in a tweet — critiqued the F-35, it was a blunt and, characteristically, bombastic comment:
Based on the tremendous cost and cost overruns of the Lockheed Martin F-35, I have asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 22, 2016
But now the message is morphing. He now says he’ll do “big things” on the program and — “perhaps” — with the F-18. That seems to indicate that he now knows the F-18, while an excellent aircraft, is not “comparable” to the F-35. It also seems to indicate that he’s learning more details about the F-35. His mention of competition is particularly interesting. This might be interpreted to mean Trump wants another company to build F-35s, perhaps under license to Lockheed. My interpretation is that Trump is trying to keep the pressure on Lockheed to bring costs down, something the company’s CEO, Marillyn Hewson, has already pledged to do.
UPDATE BEGINS A Thursday statement by James Mattis, Trump’s presumptive Defense Secretary, to the Senate Armed Services Committee pretty much confirmed my interpretation. Asked by former presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz about the F-35, Mattis said the president-elect “just wants the best bang for the buck.” Mattis, who has spoken with Trump several times since the election, claimed, in fact, that Trump has in no way shown a lack of support for the F-35 program.” UPDATE ENDS
In a statement today, Lockheed reiterated its pledge. “We understand President-Elect Trump’s concerns about the F-35 program and we’ve given him our full commitment to drive down cost aggressively. We are focused on delivering the best capability possible at the best value for the American taxpayer. The price of an F-35A has come down 60 percent from the first lot contract to the recent ninth contract, and we fully expect the next contract will show another significant price decrease,” the spokesman said. He added mention of two well-known efforts, the Blueprint for Affordability and the Sustainment Cost Reduction Initiative, which Lockheed says will reduce the cost of the program by $5 billion through 2022.
The latest comments come after the release yesterday by SASC Chairman Sen. John McCain of a letter from the head of Pentagon acquisition, Frank Kendall, confirming that the F-35 program will incur $500 million in new costs because of an additional seven-month delay. McCain sent a letter to Hewson saying he “was having difficulty reconciling this apparent disconnect with regard to lowering costs.” For McCain, that’s pretty tame language.
Meanwhile, at a Defense Writers Group breakfast this morning, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus echoed Trump’s basic comments about the aircraft, saying, “it is really late, it’s way over budget, and there’s nobody held accountable for that.”
He noted that the “the Marines have no backup” for the F-35B. However, he ignored the fact that the Marines have show absolutely no interest in any other aircraft because they value the plane’s ability to land and take off from a wide array of locations, as well as its electronic warfare, stealth and Close Air Support capabilities. As Mabus noted this morning, the first F-35B squadron is headed to Iwakuni, Japan. The Navy leadership has long demonstrated lukewarm support for the F-35C — the carrier-based version — because of doubts about the utility of stealth and the the costs and delays which have beset the program. However, even Mabus admitted this morning that “the F-35 brings you some capabilities that the F-18 does not… For that reason we need to have the F-35 coming in behind the [Super Hornet].”
One of the really interesting new dynamics in the F-35 program is one that has Lockheed Martin executives smiling. The new chairman of the powerful House Appropriations defense subcommittee is Rep. Kay Granger, who happens to represent the Fort Worth district in which Lockheed builds the F-35. As her bio notes, “Kay fully supports the talented people and businesses that make the weapons systems that keep our country safe. Local programs that fuel the Texas and U.S. economies include Lockheed Martin Aeronautics’ manufacturing line that builds the F-35 “Lightning” Joint Strike Fighter, F-16 “Fighting Falcon” and F-22 ‘Raptor’; and, Bell Helicopter Textron’s ongoing development and procurement of the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft.”
Once he gets the briefings on the F-35’s capabilities and it’s much improved program management over the last five years, I predict Trump will continue pushing Lockheed for cost savings — just as program head Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan and Kendall have done. Also, Trump will face at least one staunch and powerful F-35 supporter in Congress should he try and trim the program. At least.