WASHINGTON (AP) — President-elect Donald Trump is vowing to corral the “out of control” cost of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. But congressional Republicans and Democrats, aware of the tens of thousands of jobs the aircraft generates in 45 states, will be wary of any plans by Trump to cut the program.
A Monday morning tweet from Trump targeting the F-35 doesn’t explain exactly how he’ll save billions of dollars in military purchases while also honoring a campaign vow to rebuild the armed forces. Once Trump is in office, he can propose deep cuts to the F-35 or even elect to cancel the program altogether. But Congress, not the president, controls the government’s purse strings and makes the final decisions about the budget.
Built by defense giant Lockheed Martin, the nearly $400 billion price tag for the F-35 makes the program the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons acquisition ever. Despite the huge cost, the program has strong bipartisan support in Congress, where lawmakers view the aircraft as essential to national security.
After Trump’s tweet, Lockheed Martin’s shares tumbled, wiping out nearly $4 billion of the company’s market value. The F-35 program made up 20 percent of Lockheed’s total 2015 revenue of $46.1 billion. U.S. government orders made up 78 percent of its revenue last year.
“Whoever has this airplane will have the most advanced air force in the world. That’s why we’re building the F35. That’s why it’s important to not only the U.S., our partners and our partners like the Israeli Air force to have this airplane,” said Jeff Babione, general manager of the F-35 program, at a base in Israel.
Israel and several other U.S. allies are also buying the F-35, expanding the program’s international footprint. Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited Israel on Monday as Tel Aviv received the first two next-generation F-35 fighter jets that will help preserve the country’s military edge in the volatile Mideast.
The F-35, which uses stealth technology to avoid being detected by radar, is being built in different configurations to be used by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. The Navy’s version, for example, is designed to take off and land on an aircraft carrier.
Current plans call for the United States to buy nearly 2,500 F-35s. Close to $13 billion will be needed annually between 2016 and 2038 to hit that procurement number, according to the Government Accountability Office.
While the F-35 had massive budget overruns early on, the cost has stabilized and even dropped a bit following tough negotiations between the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin, according to Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Trump is unlikely to squeeze more blood out of this rock,” Harrison said.