Lockheed’s F-35 facing new scrutiny from Trump administration

Donald Trump’s doubts about the $379 billion F-35 fighter jet program could cast a pall over the defense industry’s early euphoria that a major boost in spending is coming after the next administration takes office.

The stealthy fighter built by Lockheed Martin was the only major weapons program Trump questioned during the campaign, even as he espoused the need for a larger Army and more warships. In an October 2015 interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt, Trump criticized the jet’s costs and said he heard “that it’s not very good. I’m hearing that our existing planes are better.”

He’ll have to decide quickly whether that skepticism still stands.

Soon after taking office in January, Trump will be faced with some key decisions about the F-35 and other weapons systems. Under current plans, the U.S. is scheduled to boost purchases of the jet in the fiscal 2018 budget year to 70 from 63 this year, and then to 80 in fiscal 2019.

There’s also a pending “block buy” of 450 aircraft in the coming years as the Pentagon seeks a total fleet of 2,443, including 1,763 for the Air Force. Lockheed’s Fort Worth plant, where the planes are being built, is undergoing a $1.2 billion renovation and expansion to prepare for increased production.

“While Trump may not be a big fan of the F-35, he really has very few other options to modernize tactical combat aircraft,” Byron Callan, a defense analyst with Capital Alpha Partners, said in an email.

Messages left with Trump’s transition team about whether the president-elect stands by his earlier comments weren’t immediately returned. Last week, the top executive at Lockheed’s aeronautics unit said the company had begun meeting with Trump’s transition team to provide information about the F-35.

Any potential ramp-up of F-35 purchases could quickly compete for funds with Trump’s stated vision for the Army and Navy. He wants to reverse the Army’s planned reduction to 450,000 troops by the end of fiscal 2018 from 475,000 today, eventually boosting it to 540,000. That alone would cost as much as $30 billion over current plans, according to defense analysts.

Likewise, the Navy in January is scheduled to present its new force structure assessment, likely calling for increasing total ship numbers beyond the currently planned 308 from 272 today. Trump has said he’d like to see as many as 350 ships in the Navy. That would cost an average $4 billion extra annually over the currently forecast about $16.5 billion a year, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

Congress also has its own expectations. Lawmakers want the Pentagon to review a 2009 decision by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to curtail production of Lockheed’s F-22. And the Pentagon and Navy could decide by February whether to approve a $22 billion production phase for up to 200 CH-53K Marine Corps heavy-lift helicopters built by Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky unit.

When all this is taken into consideration with the Pentagon’s longer range plans to modernize the nuclear triad — including the purchase of 12 submarines — the F-35 and some of the nuclear programs are “bound to face scrutiny because of their sheer size,” said Andrew Krepinevich, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, in an email. “The budget cutters will look for where the most money is. A lot of it is in these programs.”

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.