As President-Elect, Donald Trump made a game of publicly shaming companies on Twitter. He’d call them out on their foreign investments, or their existing government contracts, or even their future hiring plans, and then he’d show up at their factory, or summon their CEOs to Trump Tower for a public tongue lashing. It was all a show, designed to win concessions – or at least, the appearance of concessions – that he could then brag about on Twitter. It was his own circle of tweets.
Among the most infamous was his assault on defense contractor Lockheed Martin for its much maligned F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. Trump decided he could solve the very complex problems of cost over-runs, problems that have plagued military contracts of all types for years, with a series of threats over social media.
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
While Lockheed Martin did announce a reduced per-plane cost for a batch of F-35 aircraft already on order in February – and credited the President with helping speed-up negotiations – CNN reported at the time that the program was already well into a cost-reduction initiative.
The Pentagon has worked with Lockheed Martin to bring the costs down since the program was restructured in 2011. And indications are that the program was already on target for cost reductions through 2019.“(W)e are substantially bringing the cost of each aircraft down and at the same time the F-35 program will continue to add thousands of additional jobs to the US economy as we increase production year over year,” said Jeff Babione, Lockheed Martin F-35 vice president and general manager, in a statement.
Military contracts are tricky business, especially when they cover the development of new, high-tech, manned weapons systems that often call for quantum leaps in technology for them to be realized.
The F-35 is one such system. It’s the most advanced air combat plane ever devised, and it’s set to replace much of the fighter fleets of the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. That’s part of the reason its development has been so difficult: a single base design has to be adapted to fulfill the often very different needs of the different branches of the military.
Not even Lockheed Martin has invented a way to accurately measure the hubris required for someone with no military, engineering, or manufacturing experience to tell the world’s most advanced companies how to do their job – with a tweet, no less!
But even more galling than that is the way the President continues to insist he’s saving any taxpayer money. Just a week ago, he bragged to the Associated Press about the “Billions” he claims he got Lockheed Martin to concede.
Touting the roughly $700 million adjustment to an existing contract for more test aircraft, Trump said:
“Now you know that’s a saving of billions and billions of dollars, many billions of dollars over the course of — it’s between 2,500 and 3,000 planes will be the final order. This was a thing that was out of control and now it’s great.”
Not exactly, according to the Government Accountability Office. They released a report Monday – the same day AP published its interview with Trump – that completely demolishes any claim that Trump’s tweets lowered costs. According to a detailed analysis of the report by defense experts at The National Interest, as much as $1.7 billion in additional development costs alone will be needed just to finish the final stages of flight, system, and combat testing before the plane enters service next year.
The challenge now is the flight tests of the final, and most complicated, version of the F-35’s mission software. This is what controls every input the pilot receives regarding threats, targets, weapons, and the mission profile to be flown. If and when it works, it is, together with stealth, intended to give the F-35 the biggest advantage over all current fighters. The contractor released what is supposed to be the final version of the software in November 2016. The only way to tell whether the software, which has been bedeviled with bugs over the years, is complete, is to test it point by point in the air.
The President isn’t wrong for wanting to save taxpayers money. He’s just wrong to believe he can do it with a tweet, and for bragging about savings that aren’t really there and that he had very little to do with.
The F-35 is a technological marvel that will play a critical role in our military’s ability to project American power for the next quarter century at least. And while military contract cost overruns are a systemic problem we need to deal with, nickel-and-dime-ing on such a critical piece of hardware – at a time when the military is facing a sever shortage of its already aging planes – isn’t the way to go about it, especially when it’s all just cheap political theater.
For someone so concerned about ‘making America great again,’ the President should stop trying to score political points that could jeopardize our military’s ability to keep America great in the future.