By Lara Seligman
A day after meeting with the heads of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, President-elect Donald Trump has asked Boeing to price out the cost of an F/A-18 Super Hornet to potentially compete with the F-35.
Trump has dragged Lockheed’s F-35 into the spotlight in recent weeks, slamming the program for “out of control” costs. Now, he is calling in the big guns, asking Boeing to give him a price estimate for what it would take to build a “comparable” Super Hornet.
“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 late Dec. 22.
"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," Boeing spokesman Todd Blecher told Aviation Week after the tweet.
It is unclear what exactly Trump intends to do next. A president can’t single-handedly cancel one military aircraft and replace it with another, as the tweet indicates Trump is considering. So, does he want a competition between the multi-service F-35 and Boeing’s Super Hornet, the backbone of the U.S. Navy’s carrier air wing?
It's worthwhile to note that comparing the F-35 to a Super Hornet is comparing apples to oranges. The F-35 is a fifth-generation stealth aircraft that is almost invisible to enemy radar, equipped with sophisticated electronics and sensor suites. The venerable F/A-18 E/F, while also an advanced fighter, is not a stealth aircraft. The Super Hornet was designed in the 1990s, and the Navy will begin operating the F-35C carrier variant starting in 2018.
Boeing did offer an upgrade package for the Super Hornet in 2013 that included conformal fuel tanks and a new enclosed weapons pod, both part of an effort to reduce the aircraft’s radar cross section. However, this proposal did not gain traction with the Navy or other customers. The fact remains that the F/A-18 was not designed from the ground up as a stealth aircraft, as was the F-35.
"It is not clear to us that Boeing could do significantly better than that with an aircraft that would match the F-35, let alone exceed it," writes Byron Callan, analyst with Capital Alpha Partners, Dec. 23.
Notably, the U.S. Air Force does not even currently operate the Super Hornet, and there would be costs to integrate that aircraft into its inventory. The Navy and Marine Corps do operate F/A/-18s, but the type can not be used on the Marines' amphibious ships. By contrast, the F-35 in its three variants is designed to be used by all three services.
Callan cautions investors not to read too much into Trump's latest tweet.
"Maybe it’s not good to try and be rational here, but we doubt that Trump’s Dec. 22 tweet that he would direct Boeing to “price out a comparable F-18 (sic)” to the F-35 will ultimately disrupt the vector of either program," Callan writes.
Still, Trump is clearly trying to send a message to the Pentagon and defense industry. The tweet comes a day after the president-elect met with top Pentagon brass, including the head of the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan. Bogdan presumably defended the program during the meeting, telling reporters earlier in the week that, if given a chance to discuss the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) with the Trump team, he would explain that the program has turned itself around since a critical cost breach in 2010.
“Given the opportunity, I would like to try to explain to the new administration that this is a vastly different program from 2011 on,” Bogdan said Dec. 19 at the JPO offices in Arlington. “I will just lay the facts out on the table and then let them make their own judgements, because I don’t think the program cost-wise is out of control, nor do I think it’s out of control schedule-wise.”
Bogdan also noted that unit costs have come down year after year for the JSF, with the price of a single U.S. Air Force F-35A variant dropping by 5.5%, to $102.1 million, in the latest contract.
Apparently, Trump is not buying Bogdan’s argument. Even before the Dec. 22 tweet, Trump vowed Dec. 21 after meeting with Lockheed CEO Marilyn Hewson to get prices down.
“It’s a dance, it’s a little bit of a dance,” he said, adding that negotiations are just beginning. “But we’re going to get the costs down and we’re going to get it done beautifully.”
Spokesmen from Lockheed and engine-maker Pratt & Whitney declined to comment on Trump’s latest tweet.
Editor's note: This story was updated to provide additional context.