Blasted by the president-elect as wasteful, the military planes that are partially made in Maine won’t be grounded without a fight.
President-elect Donald Trump’s tweet lambasting the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program as “out of control” has created worries in York County, where the program supports nearly 1,000 jobs.
“The F-35 program and cost is out of control,” Trump tweeted last week, causing shares of manufacturer Lockheed Martin to tumble 3 percent. “Billions of dollars can be saved on military (and other) purchases after Jan. 20,” the day he becomes president.
Engine components for the F-35 are made at Pratt & Whitney’s North Berwick facility, and other parts are made at General Dynamics in Saco. The F-35 program employs 960 Mainers directly or indirectly and injects $84 million into the Maine economy each year, according to a joint statement sent to the Maine Sunday Telegram by U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King.
“That contract provides security for Pratt & Whitney and literally hundreds of jobs for people who wake up and go to work every day to provide for their families,” said former Maine House Speaker Mark Eves, who lives in North Berwick. “If it were to go away, it would be pretty devastating for people’s ability to bring home a good paycheck.”
The F-35 generated such demand for precision machinists that York County Community College in Wells created a program in 2013 to train them, even though there were already similar programs at two other Maine community colleges.
“Sometimes students are offered jobs while they are still students,” said college president Barbara Finkelstein. “We have to press on them that we’d like to get them the degrees.”
It’s not the first time Trump has criticized the F-35, a program that now costs $400 billion, about twice initial estimates. In October 2015, Trump told radio host Hugh Hewitt the plane doesn’t perform as well as the much less expensive aircraft it is slated to replace.
“What are we doing, and spending so much more money?” he said.
The F-35 has been troubled. Originally intended to be an inexpensive, adaptable and reliable aircraft that could be used by the Navy, Air Force, Marines, and our overseas allies, it has turned into one of the most expensive in history and notoriously unreliable. The Pentagon had to ground all F-35s at least 13 times between 2007 and 2014, mostly because of problems with the Pratt & Whitney’s engine’s turbine blades.
Trump may discover that the program is almost impossible to kill because the work has been spread around almost every state and so has near-universal congressional support.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, for instance, fought hard to ensure an F-35 wing will be deployed with the Vermont National Guard in Burlington in 2020.
“For better or worse, that is the plane of record right now, and it is not gonna be discarded,” he told a local reporter in 2015. “That’s the reality.”
In Maine, the F-35 work at Pratt & Whitney has been championed by Republican Collins and independent King, as well as Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (who fought against funding for a rival Rolls-Royce engine) and Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who suggested Lockheed should move production work to the former Brunswick Naval Air Station to shorten supply chains.
LePage, a supporter of Trump, declined to comment on the president-elect’s tweet. “Neither the Governor or anyone else can speculate on what the President-Elect may or may not do,” his spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said by email.
Eves suggested the governor should use any influence he might have with the president-elect to protect the F-35. “If he has any sway with the incoming administration, now would be the time to use it and to talk about what would be the impact,” he said.
In their statement, Collins and Kings praised the F-35 as “the world’s most advanced, multi-role fighter aircraft” and “a critical component of our national security. The value of the F-35 program is demonstrated by the fact that costs are coming down and our allies share the burden of the costs.”
“While there were initial overruns, costs have been reduced significantly since the program’s inception, and it is projected to be less expensive than existing, less capable aircraft in fewer than four years,” the senators said.
Pingree said the F-35 has been debated for years, “many concerns about costs have been raised, many have been addressed, and there’s little to be accomplished in going over that same ground yet again. I think it’s critical that this project continue to move forward so we can replace America’s aging fleet of fighter and support good-paying jobs in Maine.”
“If President-elect Trump is looking to address wasteful Defense spending, I have many ideas,” she added Tuesday. “Last week’s report that the Pentagon covered up its own plan to identify $125 billion is savings would be just the first.”
A spokesman at Pratt & Whitney’s corporate headquarters in Hartford, Connecticut, declined to comment.