WASHINGTON — The White House webpage extolling U.S. President Donald Trump's first 100 days in office celebrates the president's success in reducing the cost of the Air Force One replacement by millions of dollars.
But there's a couple problems with that claim: The military still hasn't finalized how much the Presidential Aircraft Recapitalization will cost. This is also a significant change from Trump's initial claims of trimming $1 billion from the program's expected price tag through discussions with prime contractor Boeing.
"We've got that price down by over $1 billion and I probably haven't spoken for more than an hour on the project," Trump told supporters in a February rally. "I told Boeing that isn't good enough, the price is still too high."
Now, two months later, the White House website gives a less bombastic outlook on the program:
"Secretary of Defense [Jim] Mattis has ordered a cost-cutting review of Boeing's next-generation Air Force One fleet, after President Trump was able to cap the cost at millions below that which was agreed to by the Obama administration," the website stated.
The sudden shift in official White House statements could suggest that the president himself has lowered expectations for the program and is pivoting toward a safer, more conservative estimate. It could also be the administration's attempt to begin obfuscating Trump's original statement — a commitment to the public that the president will be hard pressed to deliver, analysts told Defense News.
There’s no specifics available for where the program savings might stem, and with no budget documentation about the total cost, the president can "pick a number" and take credit for bringing costs down, said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst at the Teal Group.
"The whole thing is kind of embarrassing. I think the most embarrassing thing is that I’m sure there are people still out there that believe this stuff," Aboulafia said. "I’d love to see any documentation or supporting evidence that goes along with this."
Doug Royce, an aerospace analyst with Forecast International, agreed that it would be unlikely that the program could be decreased by $1 billion, given the sophisticated systems on board that protect against nuclear and electronic attacks, and allow the president to communicate with the world at any time.
"The way that you could reduce cost was by removing capability, but I don’t think that’s something that will happen with the aircraft," he said. Millions of dollars could be possible depending on changes to the plane’s requirements. "It’s also a question of how much Boeing is willing to sacrifice its profit margins to secure a contract and keep the program moving along."
Trump’s commentary about Air Force One began before inauguration, when he tweeted that the program, worth $4 billion, should be cancelled because of cost. Analysts immediately debated the veracity of that figure, as the Air Force has not released their total estimated acquisition cost for development, testing and procuring two new presidential transport aircraft.
Since then, Trump met with Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg, who personally promised the president that costs would go down. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in January then ordered a review of the program that would provide options for downsizing requirements in areas like survivability, communications and autonomy.
The Air Force — which is charged with executing PAR based on requirements given by the White House — has tread carefully in its public statements on the program. Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the Air Force’s top uniformed acquisition official, said in an April 17 interview with Defense News that agreements on the requirements are in place, but remained rather vague on cost savings.
"Now what we’ll wait on is … a proposal that addresses all those requirements coming in from Boeing, and then we’ll set an acquisition program baseline, and then we’ll be able to figure out what it’s going to cost, and then we’ll go from there," he said." [We’ll] try to see what we can do to acquire the system as efficiently from a dollar and time perspective, both, as we can."
Air Mobility Command head Gen. Carlton Everhart and Brig. Gen. Ty Thomas, director of Air Mobility Command’s strategic plans, requirements and programs, told reporters that they predicted requirements changes would be small in scope — things like using an off-the-shelf power generation system instead of a developmental one.
It’s hard to know exactly how much the new Air Force Ones should cost, but converting the Boeing 747-8 into a flying White House complete with a suite of new electronics and other military-specific gear comes at a high expense, Royce said. Every new, costly piece of equipment must be thoroughly tested, increasing labor costs, and with only two jets in production there are no opportunities for economies of scale.
"President Trump has to go in and deal with Boeing, and Boeing can only surrender its own profit margin," not the profit of its subcontractors, Royce pointed out. As for alternatives, the only other four-engine jet of a similar size is the Airbus A380, and Congress would balk at buying a foreign Air Force One.
"That would be a big step for the American government to take, because in the end, Air Force One is a symbol of national pride," he said.
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.