Turning Up Heat on F-35, Trump Hints at F/A-18E/F Buy

The Air Force’s 100th F-35 Lightning II flys across the sun over Luke Air Force Base, Ariz, on Aug. 26, 2016. The aircraft, designated AF-100, marks a milestone for the F-35 program as it continues to grow, progress and support initial operational capabilities. (U.S. Air Force/Marcy Copeland)The Air Force’s 100th F-35 Lightning II flys across the sun over Luke Air Force Base, Ariz, on Aug. 26, 2016. The aircraft, designated AF-100, marks a milestone for the F-35 program as it continues to grow, progress and support initial operational capabilities. (U.S. Air Force/Marcy Copeland)

President-elect Donald Trump on Thursday fired another shot at Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program and hinted at the possibility of a renewed competition with rival defense contractor Boeing Co.

“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!” he tweeted on Thursday evening.

The market reaction was swift. Lockheed shares tumbled 1.7 percent while Boeing’s climbed 0.6 percent, according to a report by CNBC within an hour of Trump’s message.

The timing of Trump’s latest criticism of the F-35 program — the Pentagon’s largest acquisition effort at nearly $400 billion to buy almost 2,500 of the single-engine fighters for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps — was again noteworthy.

It came a day after the president-elect met during separate meetings at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida with Lockheed Chief Executive Officer Marillyn Hewson and Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, who oversees the F-35 program, among other top Pentagon acquisition officials.

Trump the same day met with Boeing Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg, who after facing similar criticism from the president-elect for the $4 billion estimated cost of the Air Force One program to develop two or possible three of specially modified 747s pledged to reduce the cost of the effort.

Lockheed had no comment.

Boeing tweeted, “Ready to work with @realDonaldTrump’s administration to affordably meet U.S. military requirements.” In an email, company spokesman Todd Blecher said, “We have committed to working with the president elect and his administration to provide the best capability, deliverability and affordability across all Boeing products and services to meet our national security needs.”

Of course, Trump doesn’t seem to be taking into account the technological differences between the fourth-generation and fifth-generation fighter aircraft.

The Boeing-made F/A-18E/F Super Hornet doesn’t offer the same level of stealth or sensor technology as the F-35, though the Chicago-based aerospace giant has previously argued that the capabilities of the twin-engine electronic attack variant EA-18G Growler eclipse the Joint Strike Fighter’s stealth advantage. And, of course, the Super Hornet is significantly cheaper.

Even so, Trump may be taking a page from the playbook of Canada, whose government under the leadership of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently opted to abandon the F-35 in favor of the F/A-18.

Last month, Canada announced it is in negotiations to buy 18 Super Hornet fighter jets, a blow to the Joint Strike Fighter program, which was originally envisioned to replace Canada’s 30-plus-year-old CF-18 Hornet fleet.

RELATED: Canada to Buy Super Hornets as F-35 Hits Setbacks

Canada had been in discussions for years to purchase about 60 F-35s, but lawmakers had apparently grown weary of setbacks and delays in the program. In June, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the aircraft one that “does not work and is far from working.”

Compare that to what Trump said during a speech last week in Pennsylvania: “How about the F-35 fighter? It’s a disaster, it’s totally out of control. So we’re going to get more equipment for our military and we’re going to get better equipment for our military at a smaller price.”

A smaller price tag may not be out of the question.

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James earlier this week acknowledged the cost of the Joint Strike Fighter program remains an issue. The Pentagon estimates it will spend nearly $400 billion to procure 2,457 of the single-engine fighters — and some $1.5 trillion in lifetime sustainment costs.

“Can the costs be driven down more? Perhaps,” James said during a speech at an Atlantic Council event, adding that the president-elect may search for other ways to find a better deal for taxpayers.

The Pentagon in November handed down a Low Rate Initial Production contract to Lockheed Martin last month for 57 more F-35s under a $6.1 billion deal — a decision that Lockheed criticized as disappointing and unfair because it didn’t address manufacturing issues, such as risk assessment and delivery schedules.

It’s no secret the F-35 has had “a difficult past” plagued by breakdowns, cost overruns and other embarrassing mishaps, she said. “But if you look at the recent years, the F-35 the cost has been coming down,” she added, noting the per-plane price tag of the fifth-generation fighter will soon approach that of fourth-generation models.

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.