Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis — Donald Trump’s choice for defense secretary — backed the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet program recently criticized by the president-elect, according to a senator who met with Mattis on Tuesday.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told the Hartford Courant newspaper that Mattis gave a “clear commitment” to the continuation of the F-35 program despite Trump’s repeated criticism of its huge costs and questionable performance thus far.
In an earlier statement, Blumenthal said of his meeting with Mattis, “I was encouraged by his clear commitment to American air superiority and the important role of the F-35 program in sustaining and enhancing it.”
United Technologies Corp., which has headquarters in Hartford, supplies the engines for the Lockheed Martin Corp.-made F-35 and thousands of jobs in Connecticut are dependent on continuation of the program.
Trump last month said the costs of the F-35 program, projected at more than $400 billion for development and procurement of nearly 2,500 aircraft, were “out of control” and suggested that he may consider replacing it with a version of the F-18E/F Super Hornet made by competitor Boeing Co.
Lockheed Chief Executive Officer Marillyn Hewson met with Trump before Christmas and pledged to revamp the program.
“I’ve heard his message loud and clear about reducing the cost of the F-35,” she said in a statement. “I gave him my personal commitment to drive the cost down aggressively.”
Mattis has a reputation for independence and his backing of the F-35 would not be the first time that his judgment has been at odds with Trump’s.
In lavishing praise on Mattis during the announcement of his choice of defense secretary, Trump said it was a revelation to him when Mattis rejected the use of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” on suspected terrorists.
Trump said Mattis told him that he could get more out a prisoner with “a few beers and a pack of cigarettes” than he could with torture.
Mattis met with Blumenthal in the course of making the rounds on Capitol Hill to ease his path to getting the waiver that would allow him to serve as defense secretary in the new Trump administration.
Mattis, often referred to as “Mad Dog” by Trump, also met with Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and others ahead of the panel’s hearing next week on the required waiver and his qualifications to succeed outgoing Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.
Before he can be confirmed by the Senate, Mattis will need special legislation from Congress exempting him from the federal law barring members of the military from serving as defense secretary until seven years after retirement. Mattis retired from the Marine Corps and his last post as head of U.S. Central Command in 2013.
Enacted after World War II, the law was aimed at preserving civilian control of the military. The only waiver previously granted was to Gen. George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff during the last world war.
Mattis, a legend in the Marine Corps for his leadership in Iraq and Afghanistan, has widespread support for the nomination but some senators have expressed reservations about granting the waiver.
In a statement last month after Trump announced that Mattis was his choice, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat and member of the defense committee, said, “While I deeply respect Gen. Mattis’ service, I will oppose a waiver. Civilian control of our military is a fundamental principle of American democracy, and I will not vote for an exception to this rule.”
In his own statement last month, Reed said, “It is clear that Gen. Mattis is a respected Marine and strategic thinker who served with honor and distinction. What is less clear is how Congress would go about changing the law to allow him or any recently retired senior officer to serve as the head of the Pentagon. That would require a debate about our Constitutional principle of civilian control of the military and passing a new bill.”