Donald Trump Starts a Dogfight With the F-35
It’s another week and time for more plane speaking from the president-elect.Last week, Trump took on Boeing and its contract to produce a new Air Force One. Monday morning, it was Lockheed Martin and the controversial F-35 Joint Strike Fighter:
I’ve been trying to develop a three-question triage approach for each of these tweet-driven fire drills. First, why is Trump talking about this now? Second, how close is he to the truth? Three, are his ideas at all plausible, and if so, who will benefit?
The answer to the first question is almost always a news report somewhere, and speculation Monday morning immediately turned to reports about Israel taking possession of two F-35s today, complete with a visit from Defense Secretary Ash Carter to mark the moment. Since Trump has shown no sign that his early-morning tweets are systematic, and since the plane hasn’t been in the news much otherwise, that seems like a safe bet. It’s actually not the first time Trump has criticized the F-35, though. Last October, before he was really taken seriously as a candidate, Trump told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt he was skeptical of the plane.
“I do hear that it’s not very good,” he said, prompted by Hewitt. “I’m hearing that our existing planes are better. And one of the pilots came out of the plane, one of the test pilots, and said this isn’t as good as what we already have.”
Second, how close is Trump to the truth? Many observers have deemed the F-35 a boondoggle suffering from enormous cost overruns and serious underperformance. James Fallows wrote in his deep dive into the U.S. military’s weaknesses last year:
The condensed version of this plane’s tragedy is that a project meant to correct some of the Pentagon’s deepest problems in designing and paying for weapons has in fact worsened and come to exemplify them. An aircraft that was intended to be inexpensive, adaptable, and reliable has become the most expensive in history, and among the hardest to keep out of the shop.
The plane started out running roughly $135 million a piece, though that figure has slowly decreased as more are built. In total, Fallows noted, the project has cost about $1.5 trillion, around the same as the war in Iraq. “The F-35 is an ill-starred undertaking that would have been on the front pages as often as other botched federal projects, from the Obamacare rollout to the FEMA response after Hurricane Katrina, if, like those others, it either seemed to affect a broad class of people or could easily be shown on TV—or if so many politicians didn’t have a stake in protecting it,” he wrote.Third, Trump’s apparent stance on the F-35—it’s hard to tell how thought-out or permanent any of these notions are—is one of his positions that cut across party lines. The plane’s critics range from lefties who see it as just another case of Pentagon bloat to conservative hawks who see it as good money spent on a bad project. Its defenders similarly run the gamut, from the military contractors who benefit from the plane to the members of Congress who want the plane constructed in their constituencies.
I am a Trump skeptic but I’m with him attacking the Pentagon’s projects and acquisition process. From all I’ve read the F-35 is a loser. I don’t know if his current statements are definitive or a starting point for reform.