WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for the next defense secretary on Thursday characterized his boss as ultimately supportive of the F-35 program, despite recent comments by Trump criticizing the high costs of the program.
Over the past month, Trump has repeatedly used Twitter as his platform of choice to trash the "out-of-control" costs of the F-35. The president-elect has also put the Air Force One program in his crosshairs, tweeting that the program should be canceled.
During a confirmation hearing in front of the Senate armed services committee, retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis said Trump has "in no way shown a lack of support for the program. He just wants more bang for the buck."
Mattis mostly brushed aside criticism about Trump’s use of Twitter, saying that the president-elect’s comments indicate the high priority placed on driving down the price of weapon systems.
"It’s not my role to comment on the president-elect’s statements except to say that it shows he’s serious about getting the best bang for the dollar when it comes to defense dollars, and that is where I find common ground with him," Mattis said in response to a question on how he would deal with industry concerns about Trump’s tweets.
"I want to be able to come to you and say, ‘Here is the money you gave to us, and here’s what we did with it,’" he added. "And I see his statements about the cost of certain defense programs as showing his serious side about keeping these costs under control."
Acquisition reform has been a priority of the Senate Armed Services Committee over the past several years, but Twitter is not the best venue for contractual negotiations, countered Democrat Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii.
"These tweets have impacted markets, created instability and some uncertainty in the industry," she told Mattis. "And while we all agree that we need to ensure that our contractors deliver the systems our warfighters require on time and within costs, I don’t think that this is the best way to get that point across."
Although Trump's tweets on the F-35 and Air Force One rattled the defense industrial base, it was barely a topic of conversation during the confirmation hearing. Only Hirono criticized Trump’s Twitter tactics, and no senator ventured to ask about the president’s comments alluding to a potential competition involving the F-35 and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
"We’re going to do some big things on the F-35 program and perhaps the F-18 program," Trump told reporters Wednesday. "And we’re going to get those costs way down, and we’re going to get the plane even better, and we’re going to have competition. And it's going to be a beautiful thing."
During the hearing, Mattis ventured his own support of the F-35 program, calling it "critical" and noting that "many of our allies have bet their air superiority on the F-35 program." However, the famed former Marine Corps general did not offer any specifics about whether Trump is considering a smaller F-35 buy or the acquisition of an upgraded version of the Super Hornet.
SASC Chairman John McCain of Arizona remained mum on the F-35 program during the hearing, but has been putting his own pressure on the joint strike fighter. This week he sent a letter to Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson blasting the program for a projected seven month delay and $500 million cost overrun.
"If the Lockheed Martin Corporation has new initiatives that are ‘ready to deliver’ to reduce F-35 program costs, I expect you to detail your plans for accomplishing this objective to the committee as soon as possible," he wrote.
The F-35 joint program office has said that about half of the $500 million overrun is due to changes to requirements and funding that the Pentagon cut from the development budget.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.