Donald Trump left the collective defense community quaking in its boots last week after he threatened to cancel Boeing's new Air Force one. Now he's going after another massive aerospace firm, slamming Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) for "out of control" costs.
"The F-35 program and cost is out of control," Trump tweeted early Dec. 12. "Billions of dollars can be saved on military (and other) purchases after Jan. 20."
Just before delivering Israel’s first two F-35s at Nevatim air base, Jeff Babione, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 program, used the president-elect’s statement to stress the program’s relative value.
Lockheed has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to reduce the per-unit cost of the airplane more than 60%, he said. The company projects the price tag will be $85 million in the 2019 -2020 timeframe. At that that price, the F-35 will be less expensive than any fourth-generation fighter in the world, Babione said. “And it will be the premiere fifth-generation fighter. That’s an incredible value for anyone operating the airplane.”
The JSF is the second big-ticket defense item Trump has slammed in the last week in an apparent campaign to rein in contractors and costly military programs. The tweet comes just 24 hours after Trump hit similar notes on F-35 during a Dec. 11 TV interview.
If the president-elect is looking to cut costs or send a message to defense contractors, the $100 million-a-copy JSF is a huge target. The program has succeeded in bringing costs down for the past few years, and achieved a milestone in August when the U.S. Air Force declared its model ready for war. However, F-35 is still haunted by a critical cost breach in 2010, and is currently facing a cost overrun on finishing its development program and a potential delay to the start of its final test phase.
The Pentagon's most recent estimate pegs the cost to operate and sustain the F-35 fleet over its 60-year service life at just over a trillion dollars - an eye-catching figure.
Trump also appeared to double down on his recent proposal to ban defense contractors from hiring former Pentagon acquisition officials, criticizing the industry's revolving door.
"The people that are making these deals for the government, they should never be allowed to go to work for these companies," Trump said on Fox. "You know, they make a deal like that and two or three years later, you see them working for these big companies that made the deal... they should have a lifetime restriction."
Trump first floated the potential lifetime ban during a rally in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, last week, according to Reuters.
Trump's remarks come just days after Northrop Grumman named recently retired Gen. Mark Welsh, who served as U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff last year when it selected the company to build the next-generation stealth bomber, to its board of directors.
There are rules restricting what government employees can do if they move to industry, but they do not prohibit Welsh from joining Northrop, says Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek. Welsh had no involvement in the source selection process for the new bomber or the decision to award the contract to Northrop, she stressed.
Editor's note: This story was updated to include a statement from Lockheed Martin.