Trump plan to compete jets ‘doesn’t make sense,’ lawmaker says

By Erik Wasson and Tony Capaccio / Bloomberg News

Donald Trump wants Boeing’s Super Hornet fighter to compete against Lockheed Martin’s next generation F-35 jet. But that idea “doesn’t make sense” to a key Republican lawmaker who would need to approve big changes in defense spending.

Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin’s stealthy F-35 are vastly different fighters with distinctive roles in America’s arsenal, according to Rep. Kay Granger, the chairwoman of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee whose Texas district includes the facilities where the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is manufactured.

“The F-18 and Joint Strike Fighter are completely different,” Granger, who was first elected to Congress in 1996 and took over the subcommittee last month, said in an interview. “The F-35, there’s no another plane like it. You can’t compare it to the F-18.”

That’s not just the rhetoric of a lawmaker protecting her constituents: As a so-called fifth-generation fighter, the F-35 is stealthier and equipped with more advanced radar, sensors and communications systems than Boeing’s “fourth generation” Super Hornet, which was designed primarily for aircraft carrier operations. And the bulk of the Pentagon’s F-35 purchases — 1,763 out of a total 2,443 — are planned by the Air Force, not the Navy.

Nevertheless, with Trump vowing to simultaneously build up the military and reduce taxes without widening the deficit, he has repeatedly singled out the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons system, one which had been plagued by cost overruns and questions about its technical progress, for closer review.

In a December posting on Twitter, then president-elect Trump said, “Based on the tremendous cost and cost overruns of the Lockheed Martin F-35, I have asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet!”

He followed that up in the days before his inauguration by calling the Pentagon’s F-35 program manager, Air Force Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, twice to ask questions about both aircraft. Boeing Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg was listening in on speaker-phone during the second call on Jan. 17.

Translating Trump’s request into action, Pentagon chief James Mattis asked Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work to oversee a review that “compares F-35C and F/A-18E/F operational capabilities and assesses the extent that F/A-18E/F improvements” can be made in order to “provide a competitive, cost effective, fighter aircraft alternative.”

The F-35C is the Navy model of the jet and the easiest to target because it’s not scheduled to be operational until August 2018 at the earliest. The service plans to buy 260 carrier models of the plane; the Marine Corps will buy 80 of the Navy model and 340 of a version capable of short takeoffs and vertical landings, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Any shift to favor Chicago-based Boeing would help the No. 2 defense contractor — Lockheed is No. 1 — achieve what it couldn’t when the company lost its bid for the $379 billion Joint Strike Fighter program in October 2001. The Super Hornet is built in St. Louis and the Missouri congressional delegation lobbies each year to keep that assembly line in operation.

Granger praised Trump’s public involvement late in the negotiations of the most recent and largest contract for the F-35, which she said may have contributed to what the Pentagon said was $728 million in savings over the previous contract and hastened a conclusion to talks that had dragged on for more than a year.

“His getting involved in that turned out to be a good thing,” she said. “He said, ‘we want to lower the price’ and then Lockheed did lower the price because they are going to build them faster,” Granger added. “I also thought it was positive that the president knows now all the things that go into the pricing of that.”

Although “it turned out very well” it “was sort of a nail-biter for a while.”

Granger said while she won’t be involved “in the decision making at all” stemming from the Mattis assessment, she will “certainly” be reviewing it. “I think the review will turn out very well for us, for the F-35.”

With Lockheed’s main F-35 manufacturing in her own district, Granger knows her decisions on the defense panel will be under scrutiny.

As a leader on the Appropriations defense panel, Granger has minded her district’s interests. She successfully fought in 2012 to keep eight C-130 transport planes based at the Fort Worth naval air station instead of being moved to Montana, as Pentagon officials had proposed, according to a Bloomberg Government profile.

Still, “I have to be careful when I start talking about Lockheed’s planes because I am not the chair of Lockheed,” she said.

Granger said she can balance the needs of her constituents with the overall needs of the country. Asked whether she’d mete out “tough love” to Lockheed if needed, Granger said, “I just have to do it.”

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