Trump Targets F-35 Over Costs, Congress Concerned About Jobs

By The Associated Press
The Associated Press
The Associated Press
December 12, 2016 Updated: December 12, 2016

WASHINGTON—President-elect Donald Trump is vowing to corral the “out of control” cost of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. But congressional Republicans and Democrats, aware of the tens of thousands of jobs the aircraft generates in 45 states, will be wary of any plans by Trump to cut the program.

Once Trump is in office, he can propose deep cuts to the F-35 or even elect to cancel the program altogether. But Congress, not the president, controls the government’s purse strings and makes the final decisions about the budget.

Built by defense giant Lockheed Martin, the nearly $400 billion price tag for the F-35 makes the program the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons acquisition ever. Despite the huge cost, the program has strong bipartisan support in Congress, where lawmakers view the aircraft as essential to national security.

After Trump’s tweet, Lockheed Martin’s shares tumbled, wiping out nearly $4 billion of the company’s market value. The F-35 program made up 20 percent of Lockheed’s total 2015 revenue of $46.1 billion. U.S. government orders made up 78 percent of its revenue last year.

An F-35 jet arrives at its new operational base at Hill Air Force Base, in northern Utah in this Sept. 2, 2015, file photo. Shares of Lockheed Martin fell Monday, Dec. 12, 2016, as President-elect Donald Trump tweeted that making F-35 fighter planes is too costly and that he will cut "billions" in costs for military purchases. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
An F-35 jet arrives at its new operational base at Hill Air Force Base, in northern Utah in this Sept. 2, 2015, file photo. Shares of Lockheed Martin fell Monday, Dec. 12, 2016, as President-elect Donald Trump tweeted that making F-35 fighter planes is too costly and that he will cut “billions” in costs for military purchases. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

“Whoever has this airplane will have the most advanced air force in the world. That’s why we’re building the F35,” said Jeff Babione, general manager of the F-35 program, at a base in Israel. “That’s why it’s important to not only the U.S., our partners and our partners like the Israeli Air force to have this airplane.”

Israel and several other U.S. allies are also buying the F-35, expanding the program’s international footprint. Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited Israel on Monday as Tel Aviv received the first two next-generation F-35 fighter jets that will help preserve the country’s military edge in the volatile Mideast.

The F-35, which uses stealth technology to avoid being detected by radar, is being built in different configurations to be used by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. The Navy’s version, for example, is designed to take off and land on an aircraft carrier.

Current plans call for the United States to buy nearly 2,500 F-35s. Close to $13 billion will be needed annually between 2016 and 2038 to hit that procurement number, according to the Government Accountability Office.

While the F-35 had massive budget overruns early on, the cost has stabilized and even dropped a bit following tough negotiations between the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin, according to Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Trump is unlikely to squeeze more blood out of this rock,” Harrison said.

The Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is shown after it was unveiled in a ceremony in Fort Worth, Texas in this July 7, 2006, file photo. Shares of Lockheed Martin fell Monday, Dec. 12, 2016, as President-elect Donald Trump tweeted that making F-35 fighter planes is too costly and that he will cut "billions" in costs for military purchases. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)
The Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is shown after it was unveiled in a ceremony in Fort Worth, Texas in this July 7, 2006, file photo. Shares of Lockheed Martin fell Monday, Dec. 12, 2016, as President-elect Donald Trump tweeted that making F-35 fighter planes is too costly and that he will cut “billions” in costs for military purchases. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

Lockheed said that it has worked to lower the price of the F-35 by 60 percent and expected the aircraft to cost $85 million each in 2019 and 2020.

Companies from 45 states are involved in the F-35’s production, with Texas, Georgia, California, Arizona and Florida playing the leading roles in testing and manufacturing the jet fighter. The company is teamed with more than 1,250 domestic suppliers to produce thousands of components ranging from highly sophisticated radar sensors to parts of the aircraft’s fuselage, according to Lockheed Martin.

Overall, the F-35 program is responsible for more than 146,000 U.S. jobs, the company said.

The Lockheed Martin plant where the F-35 is being built is located in Texas Republican Rep. Kay Granger’s district. She’s vice chair of the defense appropriations subcommittee. Rep. Mac Thornberry, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, represents the district next door to Granger’s.

Thornberry’s committee has supported buying more F-35s than the Obama administration had asked for in its budget request. The F-35 will replace an aging inventory of U.S. aircraft that many lawmakers believe are becoming increasingly unsafe to fly.

Claude Chafin, a committee spokesman, said Thornberry “shares the president-elect’s determination to have the Pentagon get weapons in the hands of our troops faster, while being better stewards of the taxpayer dollar.”

The tweet on the F-35 marks the second time in a week Trump has blasted U.S. aircraft spending. Last week, he tweeted that costs to build new presidential planes by Boeing Corp. were “out of control” and ended the tweet with “Cancel order!”