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  • OPINION: Trump's unfriendly fire threatens F-35

OPINION: Trump's unfriendly fire threatens F-35

In regular instalments of 144 characters or less, the incoming US president appears committed to publicly renegotiating the terms of major defence contracts.

It was one thing for Donald Trump to take aim on Twitter at Boeing’s replacement for the Air Force One presidential fleet. Posh executive aircraft with billion-dollar price tags are popular targets as new heads of state take office: within a month of entering the White House in 2009, President Barack Obama made a similar, public critique of a presidential helicopter deal.

But it’s quite another thing for Trump to attack the cost and programme management of the Lockheed Martin F-35 in a series of hostile tweets. Deservedly or not, the Lightning II represents the future of American and allied tactical airpower. It is also Lockheed’s single most important product, which accounts for the stock price gyrations every time Trump complains.

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If it says F-35 on the side, take a free shot

Everett Collection/REX/Shutterstock

That is not to suggest that intervention is unnecessary. The F-35 programme is at a key inflection point. After several years of stagnating between about 20 and 40 deliveries, Lockheed is at the beginning of a five-year production ramp-up that could quintuple output to nearly 200 fighters a year by 2021. In the circuitous logic of military acquisition programmes, higher quantities beget lower prices, which beget higher quantities.

But Lockheed is apparently unwilling to play its full part in the cost-reduction effort. The company entered negotiations more than a year ago on its next two lots of low-rate initial production, but was unable to reach agreement with the government’s Joint Programme Office. This mandated a price for Lot 9, and has deferred negotiations on Lot 10 until mid-January, while the manufacturer considers an appeal.

Perhaps a little extra pressure from the incoming US chief executive is just what the situation calls for. The F-35 is the costliest weapons acquisition in history, and if any programme deserves direct White House intervention, it’s this one.

By going on the offensive on Twitter, Trump is taking the highly unusual step of litigating weapons costs in public. It doesn’t help that his threat to play the F-35 against the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is empty, unless the latter’s stealth capabilities have markedly improved. Meanwhile, foreign partners may find it more difficult to justify buying a fighter when the US president says its costs are “out of control”.

Twitter has revolutionised communication, but it’s best to leave it out of the business of negotiating weapons prices.

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