Secretary of Defense Mattis Orders Reviews Of F-35, Air Force One Replacement Programs

Based on Trump's tweets alone, it should really come as no surprise.

Lockheed Martin

A pair of memos were signed by Secretary of Defense James Mattis today that demand an immediate review of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Presidential Aircraft Recapitalization programs. Not surprisingly, these are the same two programs Donald Trump chose to make examples of as President Elect. Although the move to formally begin an official Pentagon review of both of them is a major development, don’t expect much to come out of it. Here’s why.

First off, the F-35 review memo:

As you can see, Mattis is echoing exactly what Trump and his Twitter megaphone announced weeks ago, although there is more clarity in the Mattis memo. SecDef Mattis directs the Deputy Secretary of Defense to lead a review aimed at finding ways to lower costs associated with the Joint Strike fighter, but also adds the need to compare specifically the Navy’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the carrier-capable F-35C. Additionally, the review will also look into the possibility that Boeing’s Super Hornet Advanced, which includes a series of capability and rudimentary low-observable upgrades, can provide a “competitive, cost effective, fighter aircraft alternative.”  

There is no mention of an evaluation of alternatives for the USAF’s F-35A, or the USMC’s F-35B. In essence, this appears to be just a tactic to reduce F-35 program costs to the government. This is all well and good, and it certainly fits in with Donald Trump’s “art of the deal” strategy for negotiations. But seeing as the initiative does not include looking for alternatives to these F-35 variants, which make up the vast majority of planned F-35 orders, program cancellation seems all but a non issue. 

F-35A on display (Lockheed Martin photo):

On the Navy’s side of things the memo paints a different picture, as it asks for direct capability comparisons between the F-35C and existing Super Hornets, as well as those proposed under the Super Hornet Advanced configuration. Although ordering more Super Hornets in either configuration, or even a hybrid of the two, can help with slowing F-35C purchases, no configuration of the jet can replace the F-35C capability-wise. 

The Super Hornet Advanced, with its stealthy improvements made mainly to its forward hemisphere while in some configurations, as well as its conformal fuel tanks, upgraded cockpit displays, sensors and engines, represents a versatile and capable fighter, but it isn’t an F-35 and it never will be for an exhaustive number of reasons, stealthiness just being one. 

The Super Hornet Advanced also represents the end of the line developmentally for the Hornet. That’s not to say the F-35C is a necessary purchase for the Navy, but new capabilities will have to invested into to take its place alongside updated Super Hornets. Namely the introduction of advanced unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) could provide America’s supercarriers with a very stealthy aircraft that can put targets at risk deep into contested airspace and, like the F-35,  can work to collect intelligence while in the enemy’s own backyard. Not just that, but UCAVs bring a range of other benefits along with them that no manned fighter can compete with. 

In the end, if the Navy were to axe the F-35C—an aircraft that is already far along in development and has training squadrons established on both coasts—the Super Hornet can not fill its shoes alone. As such a significant downgrade in planned capability will be realized unless investments are not quickly made in the aforementioned unmanned alternative.

The Navy is currently working on fielding the MQ-25 Stingray, an unmanned carrier-borne aircraft whose design prioritizes aerial refuelling and sensor hauling above deep strike and other offensive roles. This initiative can, and should be morphed into a high-end multi-role asset that includes deep strike and reconnaissance in its repertoire in order to get this unmanned capability fielded as early as possible, with or without the F-35C. Originally, the plan was to have this happen, where a full-up carrier-borne UCAV would be fielded by the next decade, but the concept got downgraded to a tanker, likely in part to protect the F-35C program. 

The X-47B proved UCAV shipboard operations were entirely possible:

The thing is, replacing the F-35C with a highly capable stealth drone, one that features longer range than either the F-35 or the Super Hornet will ever realize, and can work as part of a swarm to overwhelm the enemy, doesn’t seem to be on the table at all. If Mattis’s memo asked for comparisons between the F-35C, Super Hornet Advanced, and an advanced navalized UCAV, the F-35C may truly be at risk. But seeing that did not happen, it really isn’t.  

In the end, all this is most likely a way for Trump to apply extreme pressure on Lockheed to get costs of the F-35 program down, and to get them to give up some of their profits in the process. As to how much it will actually affect America’s current F-35 procurement plan, I would venture to guess not much at all.

The Presidential Aircraft Recapitalization (PAR) program memo:

Nothing is new here that Trump has not already said himself, aside from the fact that pressure is now coming directly from the DoD in the form of a formal review, not just from the White House, and mainly from President Trump’s Twitter account. There is a certain set of minimal capabilities an aircraft operating as Air Force One needs in order to succeed at being both a flying White House and a survivable top-tier command and control platform. There may be some fat in the existing Air Force One replacement concept based on the 747-8i, but there probably isn’t much. The DoD learned their lesson on this during the VH-71 debacle of the last decade. 

Once again, Boeing will likely be asked to substantially drop its profits and increase its risk in order to build the pair of iconic jets (a third may be ordered later). Additionally, the Pentagon’s review would be smart to examine what extending the existing VC-25A fleet’s lifepsan would entail, and how other aircraft could be used to offset some of the Presidential airlift mission—specifically the C-32A and even the E-4B. 

Trump on his first flight aboard Air Force One (AP photo):

But once again, the orders to review both these programs were all but a certainty considering what Trump has stated over the last couple of months. What is missing from all this is a much broader, systemic plan for widespread defense procurement and acquisition reform. Nor does it address the maelstrom of other major defense programs that are massively troubled. Basically it seems that these two programs, one massive and one almost laughably small, are being made examples of and are being used in a very public manner to show that the Trump administration is putting an end to business as usual in the Pentagon. 

From left, Brig. Gen. James Mattis, X-35 Program Manager Gary Ervin, Deputy Secretary of Defense Rudy de Leon, Gen. Michael Hough and Lockheed Martin Corp. Chairman and CEO Vance Coffman talk at the end of de Leon's tour of Lockheed Martin in Palmdale, Calif., Tuesday, May 30, 2000 (AP photo):

The truth is they have a long way to go to achieve that goal, and although this may be a positive step in the right direction to a limited degree, it lacks greater awareness of the major issues that plague the defense acquisition process. 

Contact the author Tyler@thedrive.com