President-elect Donald Trump is already shaking things up around the E-Ring offices at the Pentagon and defense industry conference rooms in Crystal City and Rosslyn even before he assumes the official responsibilities as Commander-in-chief.
Trump recently tweeted this after meeting with defense industry executives and U.S. Air Force officers in charge of the F-35 program:
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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 22, 2016
That tweet — an unprecedented signal from a president, current or future — sent immediate shockwaves through Wall Street, lowering Lockheed-Martin’s stock price by two percent while raising Boeing’s by .07 percent.
The reaction from the officials most directly affected was immediate and surprisingly contrite considering Trump’s unorthodox use of the “bully pulpit.”
“I appreciated the opportunity to discuss the importance of the F-35 program and the progress we’ve made in bringing the costs down,” Lockheed-Martin CEO Marillyin Hewson said in a statement. “The F-35 is a critical program to our national security, and I conveyed our continued commitment to delivering an affordable aircraft to our US military and our allies.”
“The problems on this program quite frankly in the past were very simple,” F-35 program chief Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan said, according to a report at Business Insider. “We were overly optimistic in the technical risk in building this leading edge fighter and so we put unrealistic schedules and budgets together and then when we ran into problems we did not manage them very well.”
This tone from F-35 officials, both civilian and military, in the face of the slightest pressure from the incoming administration suggests, for all of the shock value to the status quo, that Trump might be onto something. At the same time, Air Force officials associated with the F-35 were quick to point out that Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet cannot meet the requirements that the F-35 is being built for and therefore is not a suitable substitute, regardless of cost savings.
“In terms of lethality and survivability, the aircraft is absolutely head and shoulders above our legacy fleet of fighters currently fielded,” F-35 integration office chief Brig. Gen. Scott Pleus told reporters at a press conference in October.
F-35 officials also said that by the time the Super Hornet was redesigned, manufactured, and flight tested to meet the current Pentagon requirements it may not prove to be a cheaper option.
“I have stealth,” US Air Force Maj. Will “D-Rail” Andreotta, commander of the F-35A Lightning II Heritage Flight Team and F-35 pilot, told Business Insider in a recent interview.
“I’ve fought against F-16s and I’ve never gotten into a dogfight yet. You can’t fight what you can’t see, and if F-16s can’t see me then I’m never going to get into a dogfight with them.”
The current fleet of Super Hornets are not stealth aircraft and trying to make them stealth would be an expensive and time-consuming engineering challenge.
Whatever happens at the Pentagon in the weeks between now and Inauguration Day on January 20, one thing’s for sure: The rules under President Trump are going to change. Time will tell whether they change for the better.