WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump, repeating a trick he’s used with the automobile makers, claimed credit today for something he didn’t have much to do with, but that became final during his administration.
Trump told White House reporters, who can’t be expected to know much about the F-35 program, that he had saved taxpayers $600 million in the program through his jawboning. Lockheed he said, would bring the cost down on the next 90 planes.
“We cut approximately $600 million off the F-35 fighter, and that only amounts to 90 planes out of close to 3,000 planes,” Trump said, noting that he got that figure from Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson. The president claimed he stepped in because the negotiations weren’t going anywhere and, boom, the price came down. “They were having a lot of difficulty. There was no movement. And I was able to get $600 million approximately off those planes. So I think that was a great achievement,”
Let’s break this down. The 90-plane reference makes clear that Trump was referring to the next contract for what is known as LRIP 10. The Air Force’s F-35A, the cheapest of the three Joint Strike Fighter models, costs about $102 million per plane in the preceding contract, known as LRIP 9. On Dec. 19, a month before Trump took the oath of office, Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan announced that LRIP 10 would bring the cost down by about 6 percent, which works out to $6.1 million per plane. Multiply that by 90 and you’ve got $551 million. That isn’t quite $600 million, but it will do, as my father used to say, for government work. While the F-35B and the F-35C are more expensive, 76 of the 90 aircraft planes are the A model so it’s a reasonable interpretation.
“I appreciate Lockheed Martin for being so responsive,” Trump told reporters at the White House. We’re sure the president does. I understand Lockheed has responded a tad more quickly than it might have thanks to President Trump’s tweets and comments. But the Joint Program Office, run by Bogdan, took a hard line with Lockheed five days before Trump was elected and shoved a lower price down Lockheed’s throat after 18 months of frustrating negotiations. How did they do it? Bogdan issued a “unilateral contract,” telling Lockheed what the government was willing to pay. At the time Lockheed postured a bit, hinting they might sue the government to get the deal changed. Once Trump tweeted on Dec. 22 that he might ask Boeing to build an alternative to the F-35, Lockheed’s posturing vanished. So the company has changed its position a bit after Trump’s intervention, but anyone who thinks Bogdan and his crew weren’t the primary drivers behind the last several years of price drops is, I think, just plain wrong.
Today Lockheed issued this limp statement:
“We appreciate President Trump’s comments this morning on the positive progress we’ve made on the F-35 program.”
But you can’t blame Lockheed for being so careful. After all, no president has paid such close public attention to the F-35 before. As anyone who deals with the American defense industry knows, the “customer” rules and the ultimate embodiment of that customer is the president. As someone who has covered the F-35 closely for about a decade, I can’t help but be pleased that this critical weapon system is getting increased public attention. The more the American people actually know about it, the better. The trick is helping them know what is actually happening.