WASHINGTON — At the rollout of Boeing's newest commercial airliner, President Donald Trump indicated his administration could be looking at a large Super Hornet order. Huge, even.
"We are going to fully rebuild our military. By the way, do you care if we use the F-18 Super Hornets? Or do you only care about—what do you think?" Trump said Friday, addressing veterans and servicemembers in the crowd at a Boeing plant in North Charleston, S.C. "We are looking seriously at a big order. We'll see how that [goes]."
Trump's trip marks a growing relationship between the new president and Boeing, which has been a target of both his praise and scorn. In December, Trump tweeted that the Air Force One replacement, which is to be helmed by Boeing, should be cancelled because of what he viewed as inordinate expense.
After meeting Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg later that month and getting his promise that the program would not exceed $4 billion, Trump warmed on the company. The president has even positioned the Super Hornet as a direct competitor to Lockheed Martin’s F-35.
Speaking today in South Carolina, Trump joked that, although he wants to buy more Super Hornets, "the problem is that Dennis [Muilenburg] is a very, very tough negotiator."
"But I think we may get there," he added.
During his time at the Boeing facilities, Trump met with a number of company executives, including Muilenburg. A pool report noted that before the speech, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus was holding a brochure for the F/A-18 XT — another name for the "Block 3" or Advanced Super Hornet. That model is being considered as a potential rival to the F-35C, the naval variant designed to take off from an aircraft carrier.
After the speech, Trump told reporters that, unless prices continued coming down on the F-35, he would be prepared to cut future F-35 contracts and order more Super Hornets instead. He also advocated taking steps to increase the stealth of the Super Hornet, according to Time's White House correspondent Zeke Miller.
The Navy requested money for two Super Hornets in its 2017 budget, and is set to request another 14 in 2018. But according to current budget documents, that would mark the end of the road for U.S. F/A-18E/F procurement — unless the Trump administration makes changes.
While it is difficult to judge whether Trump's interest in the Super Hornet will make for a long-term extension of the product line, there have been signs that this is a serious opportunity for Boeing to grab additional orders. Before his inauguration, Trump sought out information from both Muilenburg and the Pentagon's F-35 program chief Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan in order to understand how the Super Hornet and F-35 stack up. According to Bogdan, that conversation helped to spawn a Defense Department study of the optimal mix of F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and F-35Cs.
Although the event in North Charleston was supposed to focus on the debut of a commercial plane, Boeing’s 787-10 Dreamliner, Trump made time in his speech to namedrop a number of defense products, including the F-15 Strike Eagle and the AH-64 Apache helicopter.
The Air Force One replacement, he said, "was a difficult project for previous administrations, but it looks like we’re getting closer and closer."
Trump also hinted that he would greatly expand defense modernization funding in his first budget.
"We’re going to ensure that our great service members have the tools, the equipment, training and resources needed to get the job done," he said. "We will ensure our men and women have the latest, the most cutting edge systems in their arsenal. Right now it’s not that way."