Yet again, Lockheed Martin's CEO Marillyn Hewson told the president exactly what he wanted to hear and that's not a good thing.
Yet again, President Donald Trump has offered evidence that he may think Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighteris literally invisible. What’s worse, the firm’s top executive, Marillyn Hewson, agreed with his remarks and made no attempt to correct him at a time when her company finds itself in increasingly acrimonious negotiations with the U.S. military overthe stealth fighter’s costs.
The comments came after Trump signed a presidential memo on March 22, 2018, calling for tariffs and other trade measures against China, which could impact up to $60 billion worth of goods that country exports to the United States each year. Before, during, and since the 2016 presidential election, Trump has repeatedly criticized Chinese trade practices and theft of private intellectual property, which experts believe includes industrial espionage and scooping up data on sensitive military technology. Hewson was on hand for the signing and press conference afterwards, which prompted the president to introduce her – as “Marillyn Lockheed,” with particularly heavy stress on Lockheed – and make the comments about the F-35.
Here’s a transcript of the exchange, which you can also watch below:
Trump: “We buy billions and billions dollars worth of that beautiful F-35. It’s stealth, you cannot see it. Is that correct?”
Hewson: “That’s correct Mr. President.”
Trump: “Better be correct, right?”
Let’s be perfectly clear up front, the F-35’s low-observable design does not render it literally invisible to the naked eye. It is possible that Trump was referring to its reduced radar cross section and low-probability of intercept electronic emissions, but we at The War Zone have already documented a number of past cases that continue to indicate the president is talking about potential opponents being physically unable to see the aircraft under any conditions.
In 2017, he told members of the U.S. Coast Guard, which is not expecting to receive any of the jets, the following:
“With the Air Force we're ordering a lot of planes, in particular the F-35 fighter jet, which is almost you know like an invisible fighter. I was asking the Air Force guys how good is this plane, and they said 'well sir you can't see it,' I said yeah but in a fight, you know a fight, like I watch on the movies, the fight, they're fighting, how good is it? 'Well it wins every time because the enemy cannot see it, even if it's right next to it, it can't see it.' I said that helps, that's a good thing.”
Prior to that statement, the President gave a briefing in Puerto Rico concerning recovery efforts following Hurricane Maria, where strangely he told another Coast Guard representative following:
"Amazing job, and amazing job. So amazing that we're ordering hundreds of millions of dollars of new airplanes for the Air Force, especially the F-35. Do you like the F-35? I said how does it do it in fights, and how do they do in fights with the F-35. He says we do very well, you can't see it. Literally you can't see. It's hard to fight a plane you can't see right? But that's an expensive plane you can't see. And as you probably heard we cut the price very substantially, something other administrations would never have done, that I can tell you."
These sorts of statements are both worrying and embarrassing, not least of which because they could easily send the wrong message to our allies, enemies, and the general public. It’s even more concerning given Trump’s propensity to make casual offhand threats of military action in public settings without any clear indication of how serious he might be or other useful context.
If he is basing those kind of statements, and potentially policy decisions, on an inaccurate view of America’s actual military capabilities or other misreadings of events, he might unintentionally put the country in unnecessarily risky situations. It also hurts the United States' credibility for other, more knowledgeable senior officials to have to later clarify or walk back these statements, which might also lead to dangerous confusion about what the actual facts are further down the line.
But even more galling is that it’s increasingly apparent that defense contractors and the U.S. military have become increasingly willing to try and manipulate Trump’s almost juvenile fascination and understanding of weapon systems as a negotiating tool. In front of the cameras at the White House, Lockheed Martin’s Hewson deferred entirely to the president.
It’s not the first time she has done something similar, either. In February 2017, Lockheed Martin issued a statement crediting Trump with reducing the unit costs of all three F-35 variants, sentiments Hewson echoed herself the following month.
“For him [Trump] to focus on the F-35 and to focus on how he can get the best price for the taxpayer going forward, I think, was perfectly appropriate,” she told reporters in March 2017. “He helped accelerate that [the low-rate initial production lot 10 contract] along, and I think he put a sharper focus on price and how we drive the price down.”