President-elect Donald Trump tweeted Monday that the “F-35 program and cost is out of control. Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20th.”
His comments promptly put a dent in the stock of Lockheed Martin, the defence giant that leads the F-35 program, and led to immediate questions over its future.
The F-35 program, officially launched on October 6, 2001, represents a revolutionary attempt by all branches of the US military to replace a fleet of more than 2,000 ageing Cold War-era aircraft.
The total cost for developing and procuring the three varieties of the F-35 will likely reach $1 trillion dollars over the lifetime of the program. But a single Air Force F-35 costs less than Trump’s own plane, a Boeing 757, argued Dr. Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit that writes about defence spending and acquisition. The group receives contributions from Lockheed Martin.
“I think the president-elect doesn’t realise how far this program has come in terms of reducing risk and cost,” Thompson said in an interview with Business Insider on Monday.
“We’re looking at a price for the Air Force version F-35a that will be well below $100 million. It’s not uncommon for wide-body jets to go for multiples of that amount,” Thompson said, adding that jetliner’s like Trump’s “don’t have to survive being shot at.”
The F-35 program did suffer frequent and costly setbacks during its development, but the project’s failures are mostly in the rearview. Recent news on the F-35 has seen the program turning a corner, as pilots finally start to test the new plane‘s abilities, which have provided game-changing potential in combat aviation.
“Trump is apparently operating on the basis of old information and doesn’t know the history of the program,” said Thompson.
Thompson argued that the F-35, a single program that will provide new planes for the Air Force, Marines, and Navy despite the staggering price tag, was actually a smart move.
“If we had tried to replace ageing Cold-War era planes with separate aircraft for each service, it would have cost much, much more.” He estimated it could have cost up to four times as much to produce three different planes for each service instead of just one.
Should Trump move, at this point, to alter or cancel the F-35 program, which has only just begun to ramp up production, Trump would “waste billions of dollars and destroy thousands of jobs,” Thompson said.
Said Thompson: “This program is in good shape, and the entire military is counting on it.”
Trump hit on a larger point while asserting that billions of dollars go to waste in defence acquisition. In 2015, Sen. John McCain issued a blistering report entitled “America’s most wasted” about the “Army’s costly misfire,” or the services attempt to source a new handgun.
The report went into scathing details on how the Army put forth a “350-page requirements document micromanaging extremely small unimportant details and byzantine rules and processes the Army wants followed, many of which are unnecessary or anticompetitive.”
Additionally, the Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), while innovative and promising, have met difficulties and setbacks throughout their development, resulting in billions of dollars in overruns.
Paul Francis, managing director of acquisition and sourcing management at the Government Accountability Office, described systematic issues in military spending while discussing the LCS program at a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month.
“Once the money wheel starts to turn, the business imperatives of budgets and contracts and ship construction take precedence over acquisition and oversight principles,” he said.
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