By Aaron Gregg / The Washington Post
A competition to replace Finland’s aging fleet of fighter jets became an unexpected point of contention this week when American and Finnish leaders offered conflicting statements about whether the new planes would be purchased from Boeing.
The Finnish military is looking to replace its fleet of 62 Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet jets, which are to be decommissioned in 2025. The country’s Defense Ministry has identified five planes that could fit its requirements, including Boeing’s F-18 and Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and a number of offerings from European competitors. But a procurement decision on what plane would replace them is not expected until 2021, a press counselor for the Finnish embassy in Washington said Wednesday.
That didn’t stop President Donald Trump from saying in a Monday news conference that Finland would be buying F-18 fighter planes from Boeing.
“One of the things that is happening is you’re purchasing large amounts of our great F-18 aircraft from Boeing, and it’s one of the great planes, one of the great fighter jets, and you’re purchasing lots of other military equipment, and, I think, purchasing very wisely,” Trump said.
Finnish president Sauli Niinisto appeared startled and immediately looked in Trump’s direction upon hearing the comments. Niinisto later pushed back against the comments in a tweet Monday that translates to “the news of the purchase of the F-18 fighter planes is a duck.” He used a Finnish word “ankka” commonly used to describe a falsehood, similar to “canard” in English, or maybe fake news in the U.S. vernacular.
“The cultural interpretation: a ‘news duck’ in Finnish means the news is totally not true,” said Sanna Kangasharju, a press counselor with the Finnish Embassy in Washington.
President Niinisto later clarified his comments in a Washington news conference, saying the Finish military is still in the early stages of determining which plane it would buy.
“The purchase is just starting, and that is very clear here,” Niinisto said.
Industry analysts said both presidents’ public statements on the competition represent a worrying departure from how military agencies have traditionally set procurement priorities.
The outcomes of such competitions are often closely tied into the geopolitical priorities of whatever government is buying the planes, and it is not uncommon for officials to lobby in favor of domestic manufacturers. But final decisions on what plane to purchase are meant to be determined through analysis on the part of seasoned bureaucrats, with pricing and requirements negotiated privately with the companies involved.
Taking sides in a competition is seen as a departure from the norm.
“This kind of thing should be left to professionals … that’s why countries like the U.S. and Finland have qualified procurement professionals who look at strategic needs, economics and other factors,” said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with aerospace consultancy Teal Group.
“Or you can just tweet about it,” he added.
For Trump, elevating weapons procurement decisions through highly-trafficked tweets and off-the-cuff statements is hardly new. Before he assumed office he took Boeing to task for what he said was the “out of control” costs of the Air Force One program, tweeting that the order should be canceled. (The contract wasn’t canceled)
He later seemed to warm to Boeing when he said in a Dec. 22 tweet that Lockheed’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter should be replaced with Boeing’s cheaper F-18 Super Hornet. The Pentagon ultimately awarded a contract that departed little from what had already been planned before Trump took office.
Now, the president appears to be promoting Boeing’s proposal as it competes with foreign manufacturers for the Finnish military’s business. The apparent plug is seen as part of an “America-first” marketing campaign where Boeing happens to be the primary beneficiary.
“Trump’s goal is to promote American manufactured goods overseas every chance he gets, and this is part of that campaign,” said Loren Thompson, a defense consultant whose think tank gets funding from both Boeing and Lockheed Martin. “It’s not necessarily bad, but it sure is different.”
Still, the president’s decision to mention Boeing’s plane is likely seen as an annoyance to another American corporation involved in the competition. Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin is hoping the Finnish military will purchase its F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to replace the aging Super Hornets.
“We are honored the Finnish government is considering the F-35 Lightning II and the unmatched 5th Generation capabilities it provides to meet the future needs of their national defense,” Lockheed Martin spokesman Mike Friedman said Wednesday. “We will continue to work closely with the United States Government to offer the best possible solution to meet Finland’s next generation fighter aircraft requirements.”
Both companies are likely to face fierce competition from European rivals.