Styling himself as a shrewd negotiator who can get the best deals, President-elect Donald Trump hasn’t been shy in criticizing the massive cost overruns in some of the Pentagon’s juiciest contracts, setting the stage for potential acrimony with the influential military industry.
Trump raised eyebrows in criticizing the ever-growing cost of a new Air Force One from Boeing, but that $4 billion estimated contract is small potatoes compared to Lockheed Martin’s massive F-35 program, which is the most expensive program in Pentagon history, already swelling to $400 billion.
In fact, the $400 billion is a very conservative estimate at this point, representing development and preliminary purchases, with official estimates that the upkeep of the planes over the lifetime of the program will put it into the $1.4 trillion range.
The costs of the F-35 have been out of control for years, a fact that has been well publicized, but the fact that Trump even mentioned it was enough to cost Lockheed Martin’s stock $4 billion. None of the previous Pentagon reports, GAO reports, or Congressional hearings on the overruns had anywhere near this impact.
Trump’s position may not matter, however, as the costs of the program are ultimately up to Congressional appropriations, and like most big money programs the contract has been spread out over enough Congressional districts that funding is virtually assured.
Trump may well use his position as president as a bully pulpit to try to pressure Congress about putting some restrictions on the cost overruns, but that doesn’t mean it will necessarily happen, and companies like Lockheed will use their significant lobbying powers to try to protect such deals as best they can.
That he’s publicly talking about these things, and is getting media coverage in doing so, may be the real story here, as from the perspective of contractors it risks making their already well-established squandering of hundreds of billions of dollars more common knowledge.
That could well set the stage for some very public fighting between the new White House and the military contractors, many of whom are already griping over Trump’s proposed ban on Pentagon buyers taking jobs with arms sellers, which has historically been an easy way for the big contractors to keep close ties with the Pentagon leadership, and a cushy exit strategy for top Pentagon officers.
It’s unclear if this tough position with contractors is also going to mean a struggle with the Pentagon itself, but while Trump has promised the military more money and appointed multiple former generals to his cabinet, weapons programs in which hundreds of billions disappear into the aether annually are such an established part of the status quo at this point, it seems almost certain he will be ruffling some feathers.