Donald Trump boasts, “I’m the most militaristic person there is,” and that he’d build a military force so robust “no one is going to mess” with the U.S. Yet at his core, Trump is a businessman. So when the Republican presidential frontrunner looks at the Defense Department’s multi-billion dollar F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, he sees a lousy deal.
During an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, the real estate mogul said he has received briefings on the fighter jet effort and that it has “big problems.”
“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. And to spend billions and billions of dollars on something that maybe isn’t as good,” Trump said. He was referring to a recent five-page report written by a test pilot and obtained by War is Boring that said the fifth-generation aircraft was easily outmatched by the F-16 fighter, which the F-35 is meant to replace.
Years behind schedule and with a $400 billion price tag, the F-35 is the most expensive weapon program in U.S. history. The plane’s development began roughly 15 years ago and has been plagued with cost overruns and technical glitches.
The effort’s latest hiccup is that its ejection seat could cause fatal whiplash for pilots weighing under 136 pounds, despite the fact that the seat was designed to handle any pilot weighing between 103 and 245 pounds. The discovery prompted the Pentagon to restrict any pilot that weighs less than 136 pounds from flying the aircraft until a solution was found.
Air Force leaders expect the ejection seat’s manufacturer, Martin-Baker, to pay for the fix, however it could take anywhere from a year to 18 months to implement, Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the F-35’s program chief, told Congress earlier this week.
He also pushed back against the test pilot’s report, describing the mock dogfight as “one of the very first developmental test sorties that were flown to better understand the slow flight characteristics of the airplane,” which has since performed better in operational trials.
Regardless of the fighter’s progress, Trump, a thrifty businessman and the GOP’s most frugal presidential contender, said things would be different if he were in the Oval Office.
“They’re saying it doesn’t perform as well as our existing equipment, which is much less expensive. So when I hear that, immediately I say we have to do something, because you know, they’re spending billions,” he told Hewitt.
“This is a plane. There’s never been anything like it in terms of cost. And how about, you know, we’re retooling with planes that aren’t as good as the ones we have, and the test pilots are amazing people. They know better than anybody, okay, and I think you would accept that,” he added.
When test pilots “say that this cannot perform as well, as the planes we already have, what are doing, and spending so much more money?” Trump asked.
His hesitation is this week’s second bit of potential bad news for the F-35. On Monday, Canada overwhelming elected the Liberal Party and its leader, Justin Trudeau, as prime minister. Trudeau has vowed to kill Ottawa’s planned order of 65 jets, saving the country $9 billion.
While he’s received no notification that Canada is pulling out the effort, Bogdan said that if any of the nine partner countries developing the F-35 opted out of the effort, about $1 million would be tacked on to the cost of each fighter jet.
Since the U.S. wants to purchase 2,440 F-35s that could add billions more to the program’s long-term $1 trillion cost and force the Pentagon to dramatically cut back its total buy.