Trump boasted about big savings, but a canceled military exercise with South Korea would have cost less than one fighter jet

Key Points
  • The U.S. and South Korean military exercise that President Donald Trump canceled would have cost the U.S. approximately $14 million.
  • The Freedom Guardian drills are mostly focused on computer-assisted simulations rather than field exercises.
U.S. Marines conduct a patrol during a training exercise on July 21, 2014.
U.S. Marine Corps photo

President Donald Trump boasted of big savings when he canceled an upcoming joint military exercise with South Korea. It turns out, however, that the cost of the exercise would have equaled a fraction of the cost for just a single F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jet.

The Freedom Guardian joint exercise with South Korea would have cost the U.S. about $14 million, according to a Pentagon assessment. The activity was supposed to commence next month but was "indefinitely suspended" in the wake of the historic Singapore summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Prior to that meeting, Kim threatened to withdraw from the talks, citing an ongoing U.S. training exercise with South Korean troops.

The reclusive leader from the North consistently calls the military drills between the U.S. and South Korea a "provocation" and a test run for a future invasion.

The Freedom Guardian exercise and its $14 million price tag are a tiny fraction of the Pentagon's $700 billion budget –and it costs less than one Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jet.

Earlier this year, Trump said the F/A-18 is "his favorite plane" and also described it as "a work of art" before noting that the U.S. plans to buy 24 more of these fighters. One F/A-18 Super Hornet costs about $69 million, according to the Navy's 2018 budget estimate.

An F/A-18E Super Hornet participates in an air power demonstration over the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis.
U.S Navy photo

After meeting with Kim in Singapore and agreeing to negotiate a nuclear deal, Trump said: "I think it's inappropriate to be having war games. No. 1, we save money. A lot. And No. 2, it really is something that I think they [North Korea] very much appreciated."

Trump also said that flying U.S. Air Force bombers in regional training missions is another drain on resources.

"We fly in bombers from Guam. I said when I first started, I said, where do the bombers come from? Guam. Nearby. I said, 'Oh great, nearby, where is nearby?' Six and a half hours. Six and a half hours. That's a long time for these big massive planes to be flying to South Korea to practice and then drop bombs all over the place and then go back to Guam," Trump said.

For the last 14 years, the U.S. Air Force's B-1B Lancer, B-52 Stratofortress and B-2 Spirit bombers have continuously rotated through Guam in an effort to show American commitment to allies in the region.

According to estimates that the U.S. Air Force provided CNBC, the B-2 has an operational flight cost of $130,000 an hour and the B-1B operates at $95,000 an hour.

At odds with the Pentagon

Trump's move falls out of step with the Pentagon, which on the Korean Peninsula.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Pentagon spokesman U.S. Army Col. Rob Manning described Freedom Guardian as a "keystone exercise" that is designed to "enhance the readiness" of forces on the Korean Peninsula.

Department of Defense photo

Last year's Freedom Guardian drills included approximately 17,500 American and more than 50,000 South Korean troops. The training exercises are mostly focused on computer-assisted simulations rather than field exercises that include aircraft or weapons.

Manning noted that while the Pentagon could quickly turn the exercises back on, U.S. forces could skip this particular exercise without any "atrophy." There are currently 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, a legacy of the Korean War, which ended in 1953 in an armistice that left the two Koreas technically still at war.

Meanwhile, after Trump's discussions with NATO counterparts this week in Brussels, he will head to Helsinki to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin has long criticized the NATO military exercises the U.S. conducts with NATO allies throughout Europe.