The new defense bill provides money for 79 F-35s with Pratt & Whitney engines. Lockheed Martin photo
The F-35A stealth fighter, the Air Force version of the plane.
The F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, the Air Force version of the plane. Lockheed Martin photo

Washington – While President-elect Donald Trump is unhappy about the cost of Lockheed Martin’s F-35, replacing it with a cheaper jet would face serious problems, defense analysts and Connecticut’s lawmakers say.

They say there would be great resistance from the Pentagon and from Congress to doing away with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program – as well as damage to U.S. military readiness.

“Mr. Trump is applying to Lockheed Martin the same behavior he had with the people who built the Taj Mahal casino. The problem is you can cut a wing out of a casino, but you can’t cut a wing off of a plane,” said Loren Thompson, a prominent defense analyst with the Lexington Institute.

He called Trump’s idea “a disaster for the United States” that would hurt the nation’s military strength.

A Trump tweet late Thursday appeared intended to make an end-run around the Pentagon’s procurement planning and it’s 15-year-old Joint Strike Fighter Program.

In that tweet, Trump said: “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!”

The F-35’s engine is built by Pratt & Whitney, but the F-18 is powered by twin engines made by  General Electric. Pratt & Whitney said it had no comment on Trump’s tweet.

Lockheed’s $379 billion F-35 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. Lockheed plans to build more than 3,000 of the jets for the U.S. and allied forces.

Thompson said the Air Force has never flown the F-18 “and it doesn’t meet their war-fighting requirement.”

Thompson also said that the Marine Corps wants a jet that can take off and land vertically, like a helicopter, “and the F-18 can’t do that.” The Marine Corp’s version of the F-35, however, can.

Thompson also said the Navy can operate the Super Hornet on its aircraft carriers, but it can’t fly as far as the F-35.

“The bottom line here is that Trump thinks a plane is a plane and that isn’t so,” he said.

Thursday’s tweet is the latest of several knocks Trump has put out on the F-35.

On Wednesday Trump met with  Lockheed Chief Executive Officer Marillyn Hewson and Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, who oversees the Joint Strike Fighter program at the Pentagon, and other Pentagon acquisition officials.

The president-elect also met Wednesday with Boeing Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg, who after facing similar criticism from Trump for the $4 billion estimated cost of the Air Force One program, agreed to reduce the cost of the specially modified 747 used by the president.

Thompson said Trump, as president-elect, does not have the legal authority to unilaterally negotiate defense contracts.

“When he becomes commander-in-chief, he can do a lot,” Thompson said. “But he has to understand what he is doing…and Congress isn’t likely to go along with it.”

Richard Aboulafia, a defense analyst with the Teal Group Corporation, said, “This tweet made a little less sense than the other Trump aircraft tweets, which really didn’t make a great deal of sense either.”

“For years, the U.S. Navy has continued to prefer Super Hornets over F-35s, and that doesn’t look like it will stop any time soon,” Aboulafia said. “But most F-35s are for the U.S. Air Force and U.S Marines, which have no interest in Super Hornets and have never taken any.”

The defense analyst concluded, “The tweet was based on events that have long been decided, and had no bearing on events moving forward.”

Connecticut’s lawmakers, boosters of the F-35 program on Friday reacted strongly to Trump’s tweet.

“Any suggestion that there is a substitute for the F-35 is total non-starter. This is a program that has been vetted ad nauseum by the Pentagon, the Congress and independent experts,” said Reps. John Larson, D-1st District, Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, in a joint statement. “There is simply no aircraft in production today that can compare with the F-35’s advanced avionics, networked capabilities and integrated stealth.”

The lawmakers said “many years of hard work by industry and our military leaders” have gotten the program on track and on a path of declining costs.

“Rather than waste time and money interrupting our nation’s upgrade to a 5th generation fighter, it’s time to work together to find more savings and efficiencies for the American taxpayer,” they said.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., responded to Trump’s tweet with one of his own.

“If u care about (1) American jobs (2) giving pilots the plane they say flies best (3) cost to the taxpayer, then the F-35 is your airplane,” Murphy tweeted.

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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