US Secretary of Defense Mattis has ordered a complete review of both the F-35 program and the program to replace the current Boeing VC-25 aircraft in their role as Air Force One. The review of the F-35 is to include a comparison with the F-18 Super Hornet.
The announcement should come as no surprise, given president Trumps recent criticism of both programs. Even before his inauguration on 20 January, Trump said F-35 costs are out of control while at the same time he asked Boeing to come up with the F-18 Super Hornet as a reasonably priced alternative.
For the F-35, a recent DOT&E report by the Pentagon’s own watchdog is an excellent starting point. That report mentions plenty of delays in F-35 development and testing.
It remains uncertain what the outcome of both reviews could be. Chances of the program being cancelled are close to zero given the program’s strategic and economic importance. However, the naval F-35C version may be under threat. The DOT&E mentions persistent problems in this version specifically.
In a response, Lockheed Martin said it ‘stands ready’ to support the review. Earlier, both Lockheed Martin and Boeing promised to keep costs down. This fresh review will put even more pressure on both manufacturers to actually make up on that promise.
Donald Trump’s latest tweet on the F-35 will cause Lockheed Martin executives to have a not-so-merry Christmas, while the opposite will be true in the Boeing board room. After meeting top executives from both companies and being briefed on the F-35 this week, Trump on Thursday said he has asked Boeing to ‘price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet’.
Lockheed Martin’s stock immediately went down again, mirroring the effect of Trump’s earlier tweet about the F-35. However, the president-elect criticism probably is not pointed at the F-35 itself, but at the program’s costs. Trump has made it very clear now that he will not accept such overruns after he moves into the White House in January. At the same time, Donald Trump seems to be preparing for an arms race, even stating this week that the US should expand its nuclear capabilities.
Being the businessman that he is, Trump obviously wants to keep the costs of such an arms race down. He probably realizes that his country is at a disadvantage compared to Russia and China, who are able to produce weaponry against far lower costs. China for example is developing new stealthy jets at an impressive and alarming rate. In Russia, a single new Sukhoi T-50 is many millions and millions of dollars cheaper than a single new F-35. This is indeed worrying for Trump. The signs of an arms race are already there and not to be ignored.
When it comes to the Boeing F-18 Super Hornet as an alternative for the Lockheed Martin F-35 – that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. It will definitely not be as stealthy and not as capable in the domain of gathering and spreading data. Also, the F-35 is getting closer to being fully combat ready every day.
But Trump most likely is not interested in ditching the F-35 in favour of a cheaper Super Hornet. He is interested in costs, and that may serve the US well in the end.
© 2016 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest
Featured image (top): A US Air Force F-35A, seen at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. (Image © Elmer van Hest)