Did Trump Really Just Slash the Cost of the F-35?
Policy + Politics

Did Trump Really Just Slash the Cost of the F-35?

© US AIR FORCE / Reuters

President Donald Trump boasted on Monday that he was instrumental in knocking roughly $600 million off the cost of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program as part of his effort to bring down defense costs.

During a White House conference on small businesses Monday morning, Trump highlighted the savings he said he squeezed out of defense giant Lockheed Martin.

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“We cut approximately $600 million off the F-35 fighter,” Trump said during the meeting in the Oval Office. “I appreciate Lockheed Martin for being so responsive, and that will be appreciated very much.”

Trump also claimed to have fixed the F-35 program more generally: “There were great delays, about seven years of delays, tremendous cost overruns. We’ve ended all that, and we’ve got that program really, really now in good shape.”

The president acknowledged that the savings applies only to the latest batch of 90 of the stealth jet fighters, out of close to 3,000 planes called for in the overall program. He said that the savings stemmed from high-level talks that Trump instigated with Lockheed Martin beginning in early January, after he complained that spending for the aircraft was “out of control.”

Trump summoned Marillyn Hewson, Lockheed’s CEO, to his Florida estate on Dec. 21 for a meeting that included the military head of the F-35 program. Trump and Hewson met again in January, this time at Trump Tower in New York.

Related: The Pentagon Is Planning a New Super Rival to the Troubled F-35

At that second session, Hewson signaled to the president-elect that Lockheed intended to trim the price of the next batch of 90 F-35 jets. Lockheed expected the cost of the latest batch of planes to fall by 6 percent to 7 percent, compared to the previous batch.

Valerie Insinna, the air warfare reporter at Defense News, calculated that the $600 million reduction in costs claimed by Trump for the next batch of F-35s is roughly in line with expected drop in price.

Last week, Hewson said that the cost reductions she negotiated with Trump were not tantamount to “slashing our profit” or hurting the company’s profit margins. Instead, she said, the cuts were part of the company’s long-term effort to bring down the cost of the F-35 by lowering costs in the supply chain and manufacturing.

Trump targeted Lockheed Martin as part of a broader attack on costly defense contracts, including Boeing’s proposed next-generation Air Force One. Even before he was sworn in as president Jan. 20, Trump sought to burnish his reputation as negotiator-in-chief by attacking government waste and browbeating the auto industry and other manufacturers to abandon plans for moving jobs overseas.

Related: Trump Says Costs Be Damned as He Moves on Major Defense Buildup

In the case of the F-35, which is worth upwards of $450 billion to Lockheed Martin, Trump threatened to end the contract and replace the fifth-generation fighter plane with an enhanced version of the F/A-18 Super Hornet. He also rattled Air Force brass who felt compelled to challenge the president-elect’s dismissive characterization of the program as a financial disaster.

However, as the military subsequently explained to Trump and his aides, the F/A-18 Super Hornet has a much different design and purpose and lacks the stealthy, radar-evading features of the F-35.