The president of the United States cast doubt on the merits of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s global supply chain during a May 14 television appearance, and hinted he may work to bring supply parts currently made overseas back stateside.
Speaking with Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo Thursday morning, President Trump responded to a question about incentivizing key industries to keep their supply chains in the United States by blasting the F-35 program, which currently boasts eight partner nations contributing parts supply and manufacturing, as well as five foreign military sales customers.
The F-35 is “a great jet, and we make parts for this jet all over the world,” Trump said Thursday. “We make them in Turkey; we make them here; we’re going to make them there. All because President [Barack] Obama and others — I’m not just blaming him — thought it was a wonderful thing.
“The problem is if we have a problem with a country, you can’t make the jet,” he continued. “We get parts from all over the place. It’s so crazy. We should make everything in the United States.”
“Will they do it?” Bartiromo asked.
“Yeah, we’re doing it because I’m changing all those policies,” Trump said. “We make F-35s … where the main body of the jet is made in Turkey and then it’s sent here.”
Trump went on to question what would happen if his relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan were to break down. “Are they going to say, ‘Well, we’re not going to give you this?’”
Turkey was an original partner nation whose suppliers made over 1,000 parts of the F-35. Turkish Aerospace Industries manufactured and assembled the center fuselage, produced composite skins and weapon bay doors, and manufactured fiber placement composite air inlet ducts in support of Northrop Grumman [NOC], the prime contractor for the center fuselage.
However, the Defense Department has recently replaced nearly all of that nation’s suppliers after suspending Turkey from the program in 2019, when Ankara refused to give up procurement of the Russian-made S-400 weapon system.
It’s not immediately clear whether Trump plans to insert himself into the F-35 program, which was designed from the start to be a joint program with partner nations. Besides Turkey, the United States is joined by Australia, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Italy, Norway, Denmark and Canada as partner nations with over 1,900 suppliers around the globe, according to prime contractor Lockheed Martin [LMT]. Final assembly factories are located in Ft. Worth, Texas; Cameri, Italy; and Nagoya, Japan.
The Defense Department had no comment on the president’s remarks, per a statement by DoD spokesman Air Force Lt. Col. Mike Andrews.
“The Department remains fully committed to the F-35 program, and maintaining a competitive edge with its unique, unmatched 5th generation capabilities,” said Andrews, who is currently spokesman for Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord. “We will continue to aggressively reduce F-35 cost, incentivize Industry to meet required performance, and deliver advanced capabilities to our warfighters at the best value to our taxpayers.”
Lockheed Martin deferred comment to the Defense Department. The company won the F-35 contract in 2001, and the first aircraft flew in 2006.
Earlier this week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a new report that cautioned that the F-35 risked additional schedule delays ahead of a Milestone C decision, amid the ongoing removal of Turkey and in failing to meet key manufacturing processes.
Pulling the global supply chain back into the United States would be “almost impossible and completely undesirable,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group, an aerospace and defense consulting firm in Alexandria, Virginia.
He noted that the entire process would take years to complete and would mean losing much of the “core” market for the F-35, “at enormous taxpayer expense.”
“Some technology simply wouldn’t be as good, because there are some things that our international partners do really well,” Aboulafia said. “And most of all, you’d be paying higher unit prices, because a big chunk of the export market would be gone.”
The Joint Strike Fighter program has had its notorious issues over the years, with technology maturation delays, cost overruns and the schedule impact of developing three separate models. But the original concept of simultaneously getting international partners to pay some of the non-recurring bills while locking in a large portion of the global market “worked brilliantly,” Aboulafia asserted.
“The road to get here, with all of the concurrency, trying to do everything at once, that was terrible,” he said. “None of that speaks to the international aspect. I would argue … this [aircraft] has conquered the world.”
That being said, the United States is “reckoning with a big issue here,” which is how to make sure that aerospace companies act in accordance with American interests, such as through the Trump administration’s “America First” manufacturing policies, Aboulafia noted. When the COVID-19 coronavirus first began spreading around the world, several F-35 suppliers and assembly centers around the world shuttered for days in compliance with their local shelter-in-place enforcements.
“That might be something to look at that, … in the future, that sort of performance ought to be taken into account,” Aboulafia said.