Defense Lobby’s Answer to Trump? Don’t Tweet Back

Air Force One arrives at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., on Jan. 13, 2016 where President Barack Obama was greeted by base leadership as well as state and local officials.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger)Air Force One arrives at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., on Jan. 13, 2016 where President Barack Obama was greeted by base leadership as well as state and local officials. (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger)

When President-elect Donald Trump took to Twitter this week to attack the projected costs of a new Air Force One — an aircraft still years away from production — it left defense and industry officials puzzled, to say the least.

Many took issue with Trump’s use of the $4 billion figure to describe the overall cost of the program. While the figure wasn’t that far off, it’s worth noting the amount includes two airplanes designed to withstand electromagnetic attacks and other doomsday scenarios.

More importantly, Trump’s latest Tweetstorm triggered a conversation among industry officials over how to address spur-of-the-moment commentary from the next POTUS.

“This is a relatively new phenomenon,” said David Melcher, chief executive officer of Aerospace Industries Association. “I know the right answer is not going to be: ‘Tweet back,'” Melcher joked as he addressed press and officials after AIA’s annual media luncheon on Tuesday outside Washington, D.C.

Melcher applauded Boeing Co.’s official statement to the tweet, which he said addressed current, hard facts.

“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 a statement in response.

RELATED: In Bashing Air Force One Costs, Trump Targets Defense Spending

AIA as a whole, Melcher said, needs to “speak as the collective voice of all of our companies on issues we think are important across the industry, and not to try to respond or react to today’s tweet, or tomorrow’s tweet or anything else.”

“I think our response would be in line with Boeing’s which is, let’s just look at the facts of this … What’s tweeted today is not necessarily going to be the policy of tomorrow,” he said.

But Melcher did point out if a Defense Department program is too restrictive causing costs to bubble, then it is something that “should be reexamined” — something the industry has taken heat for.

For example, the F-35 program, already the most expensive U.S. weapons program at nearly $400 billion, may still need another $500 million to finish development, according to reports from Bloomberg last month. The request would go into the 2018 defense budget proposal.

Aviation programs aren’t the only ones under the microscope.

Lawmakers on Tuesday said they’re mulling over a hearing to address the latest reports from The Washington Post that the Pentagon reportedly buried a study exposing $125 billion — $25 billion a year over five years  — in administrative waste.

Addressing the report, Melcher said, “I think any organization in this nation being the government or industry or corporate has the potential to cut three, four percent out of defense spending,” within its overhead.

“I could tell you defense contracting companies are a pretty lean lot these days. I think our corporations are pretty lean, and I think the governments are not as lean,”  he said.

Like anything else, it’s for the department to decide, “what do we want to do with this and what changes do they want to make.”

Company outsourcing will most likely take a hit, given that Trump has, on Twitter no less, addressed the practice as “wrong.”

How this affects defense is yet to be seen.

Melcher said capabilities that relate to national security and defense, “most of them are jobs in the United States, manufacturing operations in the United States.”

“Some of the bigger companies have manufacturing operations” in various nations, he added. “I think they were principally bought because they couldn’t repatriate capital … and so they tried to use it in an effective or efficient way, bought an overseas company in order to [get into] different markets, but we’re principally a U.S.-based industry.”

The AIA head said he doesn’t foresee a lot of change otherwise to how the U.S. business model works on the defense side, though some companies may address their commercial operations.

About the Author

Oriana Pawlyk
Oriana Pawlyk is a reporter at Military.com. She can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.