Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson emerged from a meeting with President-elect Donald Trump Friday pledging to bring down the cost of the F-35 Lightning II and promising to hire more than 1,800 additional workers in Fort Worth.
Her comments were the latest in a dogfight initiated by Trump, who has questioned the F-35’s costs and capabilities. Last month he went on Twitter to say that the stealth fighter program was “out of control” and threatening to seek a new bid for a comparable F-18 Hornet built by Boeing as an alternative.
“We had the opportunity to talk to him about the F-35 program and I certainly share his views that we need to get the best capability to our men and women in uniform and we have to get it at the lowest possible price,” Hewson told the press standing in the lobby of the Trump Tower in Manhattan.
“So I’m glad I had the opportunity to tell him that we are close to a deal that will bring the cost down significantly from the previous lot of aircraft to the next lot of aircraft and moreover it’s going to bring a lot of jobs to the United States,” Hewson said.
Hewson went on to say that Lockheed will hire 1,800 additional employees in Fort Worth where the F-35 is being built, adding that “when you think about the supply chain across 45 states in the U.S. it’s going to be thousands and thousands of jobs.”
Lockheed has been projecting for several years that it will add hundreds of jobs in west Fort Worth as it moves to full production of the aircraft. In 2013, the company estimated that it may need as many as 2,400 new jobs, and more recently it has said it plans to hire 1,000 more employees as production ramps up.
The Fort Worth plant employs 14,000 workers, with about 8,800 working on the F-35. Hiring of additional workers will begin in late 2017, speed up in 2018 and stretch out through 2020, said Lockheed spokesman Ken Ross. Last year, the company built about 50 F-35s and current plans call for production to increase to about 160 a year by 2019.
“There have been a lot of different estimates along the way as we look at things and refine our production process,” Ross said. “We’ve always been very conservative when we come out with a public number.”
At the start of this year, Lockheed shifted the majority of its employees to a new work schedule to prepare for full production.
The fight over lowering the cost of the aircraft also isn’t new.
After more than a year of tough negotiations, in November the Pentagon announced a $6.1 billion contract for production of the next 57 F-35s, reflecting a 3.7 percent reduction in the average price of the jets from what it paid in the last order and 58 percent less than when the first planes were produced.
Negotiations on the tenth batch of F-35 are continuing, with Joe DellaVedova, spokesman for the Pentagon's F-35 office, saying his office “remains focused on getting the best deal for the warfighters and taxpayers.”
The F-35 program, at $379 billion, is the most expensive weapon system in Pentagon history. Lockheed Martin has been working to reduce the cost of the F-35 to about $85 million by the 2019-2020 timeframe.
While Lockheed has not always been happy with how the Pentagon has handled its contracts — the latest deal was imposed on the company, not mutually agreed to — it stresses that it has been proactive in slashing its costs. “They’ve been pushing for cost cuts. We’ve all be pushing for cost cuts,” Ross said.
It was the second day of good news regarding the F-35 for U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, who praised the U.S. Air Force’s decision Thursday to place the first Reserve-based squadron of F-35s at the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base.
“I’m committed to working with the new Administration, the Department of Defense and Lockheed to ensure that costs for the F-35 continue to come down so that we can increase production and continue to create important manufacturing jobs in North Texas and throughout the country,” said Granger, a Fort Worth Republican and chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.
U.S Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, called Hewson’s announcement a “win” for the local economy, but he expressed caution about Trump’s ideas about the F-18, which lacks the stealth and other high-tech capabilities of the F-35.
“In order to ensure that these jobs will come to Fort Worth, President-elect Trump must not make any unwise decisions regarding F-18 production that would compromise the F-35,” Veasey said.
Staff writer Alex Daugherty in Washington contributed to this report.