Trump’s doubts on F-35 cast pall on pace of defense buildup

Donald Trump’s doubts about the $379 billion F-35 jet, the Pentagon’s largest weapons program, could cast a pall over the defense industry’s early euphoria that a major boost in spending is coming after the next administration takes office.

The stealthy fighter built by Lockheed Martin was the only major weapons program Trump questioned during the campaign, even as he espoused the need for a larger Army and more warships. In an October 2015 interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt, Trump criticized the jet’s costs and said he heard “that it’s not very good. I’m hearing that our existing planes are better.”

He’ll have to decide quickly whether that skepticism still stands.

Soon after taking office in January, Trump will be faced with some key decisions about the F-35 and other weapons systems. Under current plans, the U.S. is scheduled to boost purchases of the jet in the fiscal year 2018 budget to 70 from 63 this year. The number is set to increase further to 80 in fiscal 2019. There’s also a pending “block buy” of 450 aircraft in the coming years as the Pentagon seeks a total fleet of 2,443, including 1,763 for the Air Force.

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“While Trump may not be a big fan of the F-35, he really has very few other options to modernize tactical combat aircraft,” Byron Callan, a defense analyst with Capital Alpha Partners, said in an email.

Messages left with Trump’s transition team about whether the president-elect stands by his earlier comments weren’t immediately returned.

Defense company shares surged on Trump’s election win last week. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Aerospace & Defense Index jumped about 9 percent, more than twice as much as the broader S&P 500, on expectations that defense companies will benefit from a Trump presidency.

Yet any potential ramp up of F-35 purchases could quickly compete for funds with Trump’s stated vision for the Army and Navy. He wants to reverse the Army’s planned reduction to 450,000 troops by the end of fiscal 2018 from 475,000 today, eventually boosting it to 540,000. That alone would cost as much as $30 billion over current plans, according to defense analysts. Lockheed’s plant in Fort Worth is where most of the F-35s are assembled. 

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Likewise, the Navy in January is scheduled to present its new force structure assessment, likely calling for increasing total ship numbers beyond the currently planned 308 from 272 today. Trump has said he’d like to see as many as 350 ships in the Navy. That would cost an average $4 billion extra annually over the currently forecast about $16.5 billion a year, according to an analysis by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service.

Congress also has its own expectations. Lawmakers want the Pentagon to review a 2009 decision by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to curtail production of Lockheed’s F-22. And the Pentagon and Navy could decide by February whether to approve a $22 billion production phase for up to 200 CH-53K Marine Corps heavy-lift helicopters built by Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky unit.

When all this is taken into consideration with the Pentagon’s longer range plans to modernize the nuclear triad — including the purchase of 12 submarines — the F-35 and some of the nuclear programs are “bound to face scrutiny because of their sheer size,” said Andrew Krepinevich, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, in an email. “The budget cutters will look for where the most money is. A lot of it is in these programs.”

Trump’s eventual decision will likely hinge on advice he gets from his incoming secretary of defense, who hasn’t yet been named. Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, is one potential candidate for the job, Politico reported.

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Lockheed Martin spokesman Matt Perra said the company “over the coming months” will “continue to work closely with the transition teams and congressional leadership on critical issues that impact our customers, our business and our industry.”

Like many expensive weapons systems, the F-35 had been plagued by delays and cost overruns. The Pentagon last month said it will need as much as $530 million extra to finish the fighter’s development phase. Approving the added funds would probably be the first F-35 decision to reach the desk of the next defense secretary.

In his interview with Hewitt, Trump seemed to reference a report published on the blog War is Boring that featured a test pilot from a January 2015 exercise with an early model aircraft allegedly criticizing the F-35’s performance.

“So when I hear that, immediately I say we have to do something, because you know, they’re spending billions,” Trump said. “This is a plane. There’s never been anything like it in terms of cost” but “the test pilots are amazing people. They know better than anybody, okay, and I think you would accept that.” So “when they say that this cannot perform as well, as the planes we already have, what” is the U.S. “doing and spending so much more money?” Trump asked.

Since the test report both the Marine Corps and Air Force have declared the F-35 as possessing an initial, albeit limited, combat capability.

“Trump’s skepticism about F-35 seems to have been based on a few critical media reports,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute and Lockheed Martin consultant. “The program is in good shape today” so “it isn’t likely there’s anybody on Trump’s team who has a problem with F-35,” he added.

Richard Aboulafia, a military analyst with the Teal Group Corp., agreed.

“At one point, he was skeptical about the F-35 but this will almost certainly change, particularly as the military services and industry contractors lobby his team,” he said.