In bashing plans for a potential $4 billion program to upgrade the Air Force One presidential aircraft, Republican President-elect Donald Trump on Tuesday seemed to signal a willingness to target excessive defense spending once in office.
“Boeing is building a brand new 747 Air Force One for future presidents, but costs are out of control, more than $4 billion,” he tweeted. “Cancel order!”
The remarks caught many industry observers by surprise. After all, he proposed a Reagan-like military buildup during his campaign.
And the timing of his comments are also noteworthy.
They came the day the Aerospace Industries Association — the defense lobby — was holding its annual holiday luncheon outside Washington, D.C., and a day after The Washington Post broke a story about how Pentagon leaders downplayed a study that showed the department could save upwards of $125 billion over five years by reducing overhead and other wasteful spending.
The Chicago-based aerospace giant was quick to respond to Trump’s tweet, noting that it has only received a fraction of that amount for preliminary work on the program, which isn’t expected to deliver a new plane until 2023.
“We are currently under contract for $170 million to help determine the capabilities of these complex military aircraft that serve the unique requirements of the president of the United States,” Todd Blecher, a spokesman for Boeing, said in an emailed statement.
“We look forward to working with the U.S. Air Force on subsequent phases of the program allowing us to deliver the best planes for the president at the best value for the American taxpayer,” he added.
The Air Force in May authorized Boeing to submit preliminary designs for the new 747-8s to replace the current VC-25A as part of the Presidential Aircraft Recapitalization, or PAR, program. The 747-8 is the latest model for Boeing’s 747 aircraft.
The service wants Boeing to modify two of the aircraft to include electrical power upgrades, a mission communication system, a medical facility, executive interior, a self-defense system, and autonomous ground operations capabilities.
Speaking to reporters on Air Force One en route to Florida, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the current Air Force One is “nearing the end of its projected life” and described the technical requirements for the upgraded aircraft as “unique.”
“I think the American people would expect that future U.S. presidents would benefit from unique and upgraded capabilities while they are traveling and representing the interests of the United States around the world,” he said.
Ernest also said the figure referenced by Trump doesn’t “appear to reflect the nature of the financial agreement.”
Todd Harrison, director of the aerospace security project and defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C., said the proposed cost for the program includes $2.9 billion in funding for research, development, test and evaluation through fiscal 2021, as well as about $1 billion in funding for procurement.
“To be clear, it’s $4B for two planes that operate as a flying command post for POTUS in a national emergency, have EMP protection, etc.,” he tweeted, referring to electromagnetic pulse.
Michael Hertzog, a spokesman for the Air Force, said for research and development costs, the service has budgeted $2.7 billion (as opposed to $2.9 billion) in the latest spending plan. He said that figure could change “as the program matures with the completion of the risk reduction activities.” He didn’t specify a figure for procurement costs.
While the Air Force’s latest proposal requests Boeing to work on two aircraft, the service hasn’t ruled out the potential for a third aircraft for future procurement.
— Richard Sisk and Oriana Pawlyk contributed to this report.