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Trump tweet renews Boeing, Lockheed Martin rivalry

Tony Capaccio and Alex Wayne
Bloomberg

President-elect Donald Trump upended years of Pentagon procurement planning with a tweet announcing he had asked Boeing Co. to price an upgrade of its F-18 Super Hornet jet that could replace Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35, the most expensive U.S. weapon system ever.

U.S. Navy crew members guide an F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter takes off from the deck of USS Aircraft Carrier Ronald Reagan on October 14, 2016 in Weat sea, South Korea.

“Based on the tremendous cost and cost overruns of the Lockheed Martin F-35, I have asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet!” Trump said Thursday in a post on Twitter.

That probably isn’t possible.

Lockheed’s $379 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is intended to be the mainstay of the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, replacing several older planes including early models of Boeing’s F-18. Advanced development of the F-35 started in 2001, and Lockheed is planning to build more than 3,000 of the aircraft for the U.S. and allied forces, a project that will create tens of thousands of jobs at factories across the country and overseas.

A F-35 fighter jet is seen after landing in the Israeli Nevatim Air force base in the Negev desert, near the southern city of Beersheva, on December 12, 2016.

In his trademark, 140-characters-or-less style, Trump did more than pit two iconic U.S. companies against each other: He sidelined decades of policy and practice in how the government spends billions of dollars annually on military hardware.

Moreover, by plunging himself personally into the complex arena of government contracting, Trump appeared to short-circuit a process that requires rigorous decision-making about what the Pentagon needs, an effort to create a level playing field, reviews by experts in defense policy and military hardware and congressional oversight.

Trump’s comments were “bizarre,” Richard Aboulafia, a military aircraft analyst with the Teal Group, said in an email. “The Navy remains the only U.S. customer for the Super Hornet, while the Marines are completely dependent on F-35Bs and the Air Force is sticking with the F-35A,” he said. “Thus, Trump’s tweet is both late to the game and completely irrelevant.”

The exact impact of Trump’s tweet wasn’t immediately clear. The Defense Department has scaled back purchases of the F/A-18E/F model, which lacks stealth and other high-tech capabilities of the F-35, and would require extensive design changes to be comparable to the newer plane. The Pentagon had requested just two F-18 Super Hornets for the fiscal year that began in October, though Congress has indicated in spending bills that it would like to buy at least 12 more.

Trump also didn’t provide enough information to assess what role he’d want a new Boeing bid to play controlling what he claims are out-of-control costs.

The Pentagon had clear reasons for going with the F-35.

The Air Force, which plans to buy 1,763 of the F-35A model jets, would not fly Boeing’s minimally stealthy “fourth-generation” Super Hornet, which is designed for aircraft carrier operations.

The Marines decided against buying the Super Hornet “and instead waited for the F-35B in part because the F/A-18E/F” is a conventional takeoff aircraft and the Corps “prefers aircraft capable of vertical operations,” said the Congressional Research Service in a July report.

Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute who has followed the program since Lockheed Martin beat Boeing in the winner-take-all contract, said, “Mr. Trump needs to understand all the costs of substituting one plane for the other.”

Super Hornets “require escort aircraft to compensate for their lack of stealth and” capability to gather, fuse and distribute data from weapons sensors, he said. Even the Navy’s initial doubts about the aircraft-carrier version of the F-35 “disappeared after a series of very successful sea trials for the new fighter,” he added.

The Navy’s current plan is to rely on the F-35 during the opening days of a conflict “because it is invisible to enemy radar, and then shift over to use of Super Hornets,” Thompson said.

In an emailed statement, Boeing spokesman Todd Blecher said, “We have committed to working with the president elect and his administration to provide the best capability, deliverability and affordability across all Boeing products and services to meet our national security needs.”

Trump’s repeated frustrations with the F-35’s costs have been echoed by others. The F-35 program has had $81 billion in obligations for the last 10 fiscal years. Yet it has also had repeated challenges, with defense officials saying recently it would need as much as $500 million extra to finish its development phase.

From inadequate wing strength in some models to delays in live-fire testing of the jet’s gun system for attacking ground targets and enemy jets in dogfights, the F-35’s travails have provoked outrage on Capitol Hill. But with few, if any, alternatives to the jet’s technological prowess, the program continues.

“Beyond the program itself, we believe Trump’s tweets are a message to the broader contractor community to keep costs down,” Seth Seifman, an analyst at JPMorgan Chase & Co., said in a report. “How persistently and comprehensively the new administration will reinforce this message remains unclear.”

In a sign of how spread out the F-35 program is, that latest down payment will fund work on the F-35 in Fort Worth, Texas; El Segundo, California; Orlando, Florida; Nashua, New Hampshire, Baltimore; Nagoya, Japan and Warton in the U.K., according to the Pentagon.

While the development and sale of the F-35 is an international effort, some U.S. allies have backed out of the program, at least for now.