Donald Trump Starts a Dogfight With the F-35

The president-elect’s latest morning sortie is against the controversial, budget-busting Joint Strike Fighter, but he may be too late to stop it.

Rick Bowmer / AP

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.

Some progressives will view Trump’s attack as a welcome broadside against the military-industrial complex, though they’re probably misguided if they expect to find much of an ally in Trump. He has made repealing the Defense sequester a priority, and wants to expand every branch of the armed forces by large amounts. Estimates of what all that would cost run around $100 billion—or about 1,000 times the cost of an F-35. While the F-35’s supply chain stretches around the country and around the globe, final assembly takes place in Fort Worth, in ruby-red Texas.

Last week, I noted that the heavy concentration of Army and Marine generals in Trump’s inner circle might be a cause of consternation for brass in the Air Force and Marines; the Air Force will be the biggest consumer of the F-35.

Conservatives may also blanch at Trump interfering—yet again, after his deal with Carrier and his jabs at Boeing—with free enterprise. Trump’s tweet sent Lockheed Martin stock into a nosedive (or a stall, or a tailspin, or… well, pick your own aviation cliche), dropping nearly 3 percent before U.S. markets opened. Something similar happened to Boeing last week, but the stock basically recovered after the initial shock. (Lockheed had been trading high before; just Sunday, Motley Fool was remarking on what a great boon the F-35 had been for the contractor.)

It doesn’t take much creativity to start spinning conspiracy theories about Trump messing with the market for financial benefit, his own or someone else’s. Forbes last week ran a column about how one might try to game the stock market by anticipating who Trump might assail on Twitter. Peter Cohan wrote that if you could guess effectively, that would be profitable, although trying to anticipate Trump is generally a fool’s errand. What if you didn’t have to guess, though? What if you knew what Trump was going to tweet before he did it? Trump has been accused of securities violations before and settled suits with the government. He could go a long way toward dampening speculation of skullduggery here by providing the measures of transparency he has so far refused, including releasing his tax returns, putting his own finances in a blind trust, and providing proof he has in fact sold off all his equities, as an aide claimed last week that he had done this summer.

As for the airplane, the question here is whether Trump can kill a project that others have tried in vain to stop? Past efforts have tended to founder because the F-35’s critics have assumed that huge costs and obviously underwhelming performance was enough to slay the beast. What they misunderstood was the effect to which the plane’s high costs and sprawling manufacturing scheme are features as well as bugs. Since the project provides large sums of money to congressional districts around the country, it has lot of quiet defenders in Congress. As with many government programs, but perhaps even more vividly, the public tells pollsters it want less defense spending in the abstract but won’t take to the streets to cut the Pentagon budget when push comes to shove.

Trump acts immune to these political pressures, but there hasn’t been a good test of whether he really is. Republicans in Congress have responded meekly to some of his provocations, but he also isn’t in the White House and making real policy yet.

But it also may be too late for Trump to make a difference—no matter how little he cares about breaking china. Many of the reporters who have looked most closely at the F-35, including Fallows, Kelsey Atherton, and Mark Thompson, have concluded that it’s probably too late to block it. The program is simply too far entrenched. If Trump truly wants to save military money, he’d be better served by looking forward and killing the next F-35 before it gets too big. But that’s harder and less fun that watching the morning news and firing off tweets about it.

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