Trump says F-35 fighter jet is overpriced. Can he rein in wasteful spending?

The US president-elect tweeted Monday morning that defense spending on the new aircraft had gotten out of hand.

Rick Bowmer/AP/File
An F-35 jet arrives at its new operational base at Hill Air Force Base in northern Utah in 2015. 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.

President-elect Donald Trump took another defense contractor to task Monday, complaining on Twitter about high prices associated with the Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35 fighter jet program and promising to save billions on military spending after he takes office next month.

Mr. Trump's tweet, which sent the company's stock slipping as much as 4 percent in early trading, reflects his campaign promises to cut wasteful government spending. It may suggest the incoming administration aims to drive a hard bargain with companies that do business with the US Department of Defense. But some say it fuels fears that Trump's shoot-from-the-hip approach might be undermining his ability to lead effectively.

Jordan Tama, an assistant professor at the American University School of International Service in Washington, says Trump's end goal may be noble, even if his means are questionable.

"A lot of contracts for defense and other government programs have run way over budget, and there's a lot of room to trim waste associated with some for these contracts. The problem is that Trump is doing this in a totally ad hoc way," Dr. Tama tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Monday.

Instead of relying on government experts to conduct systematic cost-benefit analyses on a range of defense systems and programs, Trump appears to be ignoring that process and engaged in off-the-cuff tweeting about individual, big-budget programs, Tama says. "And he's not doing that based on a real sound assessment of what the full picture is regarding defense contracting."

The president should be articulating a long-term vision, then instructing defense officials to ensure that current spending priorities align with anticipated needs decades into the future, Tama says.

"We don’t even know what Donald Trump’s defense strategy is going to be," Tama adds. "It's not possible to make a judgment about which weapons systems we most need, or which ones might be superfluous and unnecessary, without knowing what the country's defense strategy is going to be."

Last week, Trump complained in a tweet that Boeing Co.'s forthcoming Air Force One "for future presidents" had grown too expensive. "Cancel order!" he wrote, putting a divot in the company's stock prices that day. While supporters say his comments on Boeing are consistent with his money-saving agenda, critics noted that the planes being developed won't come into service until the mid-2020s, most likely after Trump leaves office, even if he wins a second term, as The Christian Science Monitor reported.

Trump's tweet Monday struck a similar note, saying the F-35 program costs had similarly grown "out of control." The statement is one Trump made frequently during his campaign, criticizing what the US Government Accountability Office has called the Pentagon's "most costly and ambitious acquisition program." Due to design and manufacturing problems, program costs doubled to nearly $400 billion, as The Wall Street Journal reported.

Byron Callan, a financial analyst at Capital Alpha Partners, told investors that Trump's tweet was "more bark than bite," as The Washington Post reported.

"We strongly doubt that Trump has been fully informed of the F-35 program or alternatives to modernize U.S. tactical aircraft inventories," Mr. Callan wrote. "As well, we strongly doubt that he has been informed of the unique international nature of the program."

Jeff Babione, the executive vice president and general manager for Lockheed's F-35 program, said the company welcomes "the opportunity to address any questions the president-elect has about the program."

Jibey Asthappan, an associate professor of criminal justice who chairs the University of New Haven national security department, says Trump's campaign and post-election rhetoric resonate with a sizable group of Americans who are upset with government spending on projects for which they see no near-term returns. 

"I think the F-35 project is a good example of one where we just don’t see the benefit of putting all this money into it," Dr. Asthappan, who served as a bomb technician in the US Air Force from 1995 through 2005, tells the Monitor in a phone interview. Although pilots have long been excited about the forthcoming F-35's, even since his time in service, the fighter jets themselves may not be among the most important tools for the types of conflict in which the American military currently engages.

"It's kind of an expensive tool, considering most of our targets can be attained by drones cheaply and without putting pilots at risk," Asthappan says.

And Trump is not the only Republican politician to criticize the F-35 costs. After the Pentagon struck a $6.1 billion deal with Lockheed Martin in November, Sen. John McCain of Arizona – with whom Trump has found himself at odds on certain issues after the election – called the deal "the height of acquisition malpractice," as The Hill reported.

"Unfortunately, it is too often seen as business as usual," Senator McCain, who chairs the Armed Services Committee, added. "That is why the acquisition reforms in last year's and this year's National Defense Authorization Act are so critical. We cannot change course soon enough."

Republican lawmakers tend to favor increasing military spending, but in a way that minimizes waste. Rep. Mac Thornberry (R) of Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told Politico earlier this month that Trump's election represents "a widespread recognition on both sides of the aisle that we cut too much and we've got to build back."

Rep. Mike Turner (R) of Ohio told Politico it is time to do away with "the artificial impediment of sequestration and return to looking at the whole budget as we look for savings and cost reductions."

Trump's push to restore military funding while simultaneously cutting waste comes as reports surfaced last week that the Pentagon had buried an internal report detailing $125 billion in bureaucratic spending.

Given how Trump has sought to challenge the "revolving door" between government jobs in Washington and private industry posts that cater to government needs, though, his lack of predictability could be an effort to shake up the current order.

"That existing system is one where defense contractors tend to do very well, and it would actually be helpful if we had a president who gave more scrutiny to defense contracts," Dr. Tama says. "But that scrutiny really needs to be done in a careful and rigorous, analytical way, not in an ad hoc way."

This report contains material from Reuters.

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