Trump's Twitter attack on the F-35 is only his latest on the stealth fighter

Former Rubio advisor: Trump's tweets have real-world consequences

President-elect Donald Trump's attack on the F-35 stealth fighter jet isn't the first time the billionaire has lashed out at one of the military's biggest and most expensive acquisition programs.

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is several years behind schedule and expected to cost upward of $1.5 trillion by the end of the 55-year life of the program.

"The F-35 program and cost is out of control," Trump tweeted Monday. "Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20th."

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Last week, Boeing itself was slammed by the president-elect when he tweeted that "costs are out of control" on Boeing's new 747 Air Force One, a price tag he said was "more than $4 billion."

"Trump has clearly learned that bully pulpit of Twitter can be pretty powerful," said Cai von Rumohr, a defense stock analyst at Cowen. "Defense is in essence a political business, so if the president or president-elect of the United States says you're asking too much money, people worry."

As a presidential candidate, Trump also was critical of the F-35 program. Last year, he criticized the F-35 as "not very good."

After Trump's election, Lockheed is known to have held meetings with Trump's transition team to discuss the F-35. Those meetings were reportedly designed to head off any attempts to downsize the program.

Responding to Trump's latest cost criticism on the F-35, a Lockheed Martin official said the defense contractor understands the president-elect's concerns about affordability and adds that the company has invested millions of dollars already to reduce the fifth-generation fighter's price by more than 60 percent since its original estimate.

"These are more of the sort of tactics to let the industry know that he's going to take these seriously and that the (Trump) administration is going to review these things closely," said John Kenkel, a defense industry expert at PA Consulting Group, a management consulting firm.

Senate Armed Services Chair John McCain, R-Ariz., also has been a critic of the program. Last month, he wrote a letter to the Pentagon criticizing what he described as an additional $1 billion cost overrun on the F-35.

Lockheed has delivered 184 U.S. and international F-35 fighter aircraft. The company said the program creates about 146,000 U.S. jobs across the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Besides Lockheed, other manufacturing partners in the program are Northrop Grumman, United Technologies' Pratt & Whitney and BAE Systems.

The F-35 is expected to have a lifespan of more than 30 years, and analysts suggest it's needed since the Chinese and Russians also are developing fifth-generation fighter capability.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is being acquired by three branches of the U.S. military — the Air Force, Navy and Marines — also is one of the few military programs using a global supply chain and common industrial pool to build and service. On Monday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter was in Israel as it received its first two F-35s.

Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter being towed with the pilot in the front seat, monitoring the aircraft, at the Abbotsford International Airshow on August 13, 2016.
Getty Images

Analysts suggest it would be difficult for the Defense Department to back out of the Joint Strike Fighter program because of the heavy international support for the program, which originally had nine countries participating.

Analysts say the president-elect's use of Twitter to communicate his displeasure on high-profile programs such as the new Air Force One from Boeing and Lockheed's F-35 program is likely to add to uncertainty for defense contractors.

"We think we know kind of how volatile everything is going to be in the future, and it turns out we have no idea," said Katherine Blakeley, a research fellow at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Trump's tweet sent Lockheed's stock lower. It was down 3.6 percent by early afternoon. Shares of other major defense contractors are also weak: Northrop Grumman is down 4 percent, Raytheon was off nearly 3 percent and General Dynamics slipped more than 2 percent.

Boeing was off only slightly on Monday but over the weekend the aerospace and defense giant announced an agreement for nearly $17 billion involving the sale of 80 commercial airplanes to Iran Air, the state-owned carrier. The company said in its press release Sunday that the deal for Boeing's commercial aircraft will create nearly 100,000 jobs.

Correction: This story was revised to correct the spelling of Cai von Rumohr's last name.