Trump and the theater of arms acquisitions
President-elect Donald Trump is already starting to get his tiny hands all over national security and defense. In early December, he-who-shall-be-retweeted, nit-picked the costs of building a new fleet of Air Force One Boeing 747s, apparently failing to realize that making these aircraft capable of both surviving a nuclear war and serving as a flying executive command post is a bit more expensive than painting “Trump” on the side of a Boeing 757.
Now, he has called for “greatly” building up the US nuclear arsenal while complaining that Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) costs too much; instead, he has asked the Boeing Company, manufacturer of the rival F/A-18 fighter, to “price out” a “comparable” fighter, based on the F/A-18.
The F-35: Now More Than Ever?
Now, Boeing’s F/A-18 is a good fighter jet – for certain things. It’s good for flying off carriers and for strike missions, and it’s good for smaller countries that probably cannot afford a state-of-the-art fighter like the JSF. But it is also getting a bit long in the tooth: the latest F/A-18 – the E/F version – has been in production for 20 years.
If the US military wants to maintain its technological edge against likely future competitors – China and Russia, in particular – then the F/A-18 is probably not the way to go. The F-35 is a “fifth-generation” combat aircraft, meaning that it is very stealthy and possesses a sophisticated kit of very capable sensors, computers and software to provide the pilot with a high degree of situational awareness, or “sensor fusion.”
It is difficult, if not impossible, to make the F/A-18 “comparable” to the JSF. A fourth-generation-plus fighter, it is quite capable but cannot replicate the more advanced F-35 in every way.
And that is increasingly critical when one considers that both Russia and China are working on next-generation fighters. The Russians have their PAK-FA fifth-generation prototype, and the Chinese have two fifth-generation fighters, the J-20 and the J-31. If the United States wants to maintain its technological superiority, it needs a fighter like the F-35 to keep up.
That said, cancelling the F-35 might have been a good idea 10 or 15 years ago. However, for all his talk of being such a great businessman, Trump does not seem to grasp the concept of sunk costs. Almost the entire cost for the F-35 to date – research and development (R&D) and tooling – has already been paid to contractors. The payments, therefore, are “incurred costs” and cannot be recovered. It would save little to cancel the plane now – in fact, it might cost more since the government would likely have to pay a penalty for prematurely terminating the JSF program.
Moreover, eight other countries are partnered with the United States on the F-35 program, and they, along with at least three other countries, are planning to acquire the fighter. To cancel the program now would throw these nations’ force modernization plans into chaos, and do severe damage to security relations between them and the United States.
Bring Back the F-22?
Terminating or cutting back the program wouldn’t save any money either. Buying fewer F-35s would simply drive up the plane’s total production unit-cost – that is, the cost of each plane, plus the already-spent R&D funding. In addition, with the plane now beginning to enter high-rate production, unit costs are very likely to go down significantly.
In fact, if Trump wanted a more capable fighter jet, he should seriously consider restarting the F-22 program, which was terminated in 2012 after delivering 187 aircraft. Slightly older than the F-35, it would be (relatively) cheap to upgrade to state-of-the-art standards, and, with a larger payload capacity, it would pack a lot more wallop than the JSF. And as I have argued before, countries such as Japan, Israel, and Australia would likely be ready customers for this fighter
In reality, this is all just dramatics. Trump is already committed, in typical Republican knee-jerk fashion, to drastically increasing the US defense budget. He has called for a 350-ship Navy (up from the current 274 ships), a 1,200-fighter Air Force, and 12 additional Marine Corps battalions. The military is salivating at the thought of all the new toys it will get, and the US defense industry is looking at earning huge profits in the process.
At the same time, Trump has to throw some red meat to his working-class base. He has to show he is going to reign in the greed-heads in the military-industrial complex and keep them from gouging Uncle Sam while delivering the goodies. So he sends out a threatening tweet or two, putting the fear of God into the defense industry. It responds by promptly delivering mea culpas and promising to do better in future.
In reality, however, Trump has nowhere to go. Only a few American companies exist that can produce advanced fighter jets, ships, submarines, armored vehicles, artillery systems and missile systems. The US defense industry is more segregated from the overall economy than ever before, so finding new suppliers outside the traditional arms industry will be impractical. At the same time, Trump is certainly not going to buy weapons from abroad.
In the end, Trump’s twitter outrages over arms acquisitions are just theater. He will metaphorically paddle the arms industry, apologies will be forthcoming, and then it’s back to business as usual. The defense budget will soar, the arms industry will get its contracts, and it will be fat city again for the military and key suppliers.